Rhinegold Photo credit: Sheila Rock

Robert Turnbull

My way: Melvyn Tan at 60

9:00, 28th January 2017

A lithe, impish presence at the keyboard, brimming over with boyish charm, Melvyn Tan celebrated his 60th birthday in October last year. His music-making remains wonderfully youthful too, charged with a nimble grace and lyrical precision that have won him a legion of international admirers. The first of these was an enraptured Qantas airline stewardess who heard him play in a house concert presented by his then teacher and paved his way, aged 12, to a private scholarship to Britain’s Menuhin School, where he was one of the first Asian students.

Born in Singapore, but stripped of his citizenship more than 30 years ago by Singapore’s prime minister Lee Kuan Yew for having avoided military service, Tan has made Britain his base ever since. Living in west London with his partner, the violinist Paul Boucher, he is a popular and long-standing member of the musical establishment, regularly giving sold-out concerts at Wigmore Hall and exploring an ever-broadening range of repertoire.

Tan at 60 shows no sign of diminishing artistry: his new CD, Master and Pupil, was released last September by the independent label Onyx. He played the programme from the CD at his Wigmore Hall birthday recital on 13 October, culminating in an astonishingly intense, daring performance of Liszt’s devilish Sonata in B minor.

CD coverMaster and Pupil compiles works by Beethoven, Czerny and Liszt, three great composer-pianists who expanded the boundaries of pianism over the course of around 30 years. Tan chose Beethoven’s Sonata in E major Op 109, along with the extraordinary (late) Bagatelles Op 120. With regard to the famous but underperformed Czerny, he considered one of the lengthy sonatas, but then opted for a little-known funeral march which Czerny dedicated to Beethoven. A copy of the first edition was duly supplied by Dr Michael Ladenburger of the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn, though there is no evidence that it was actually performed until discovered by the pianist Vladimir Horowitz centuries later. Tan first learnt Liszt’s titanic B minor sonata at college. It is among the heaviest pieces he has played, but he sees it as being quite classical in structure and ‘really well placed for my hands’.

The CD’s theme is self-evident: Czerny was introduced to Beethoven aged ten and went on to be his student, eventually giving the premiere of the Emperor concerto. A few years after he penned an authoritative guide to performing Beethoven’s piano works, he began teaching a young Franz Liszt. Elements of Beethoven’s style pervade Czerny’s music, but Tan is also of the view is that the rapid figuration that we associate with Liszt might not have been possible without Czerny’s famous exercises. Meanwhile, plans to record more late Beethoven sonatas, to complete the set begun by EMI, are in the offing.

With Catching Fire, a major commission by the British composer Jonathan Dove, Tan showed himself to be a sensitive interpreter of contemporary music. He premiered the piece to great acclaim at Cheltenham Festival in July before taking it to the Netherlands, Singapore, Australia and eventually back to Britain where he gave its London premiere at the Spitalfields Winter Festival in December. It was Dove, moreover, who asked Tan to perform Messiaen’s monumentally demanding cycle Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus at Spitalfields Summer Festival in 2005, his first major venture into modern classics, which took him two years to prepare.

One focus in the reaction to Catching Fire was his stamina: ‘He looked only half his age and the brilliance of his performance suggested his youthful energy is undiminished,’ wrote blogger Roger Jones, almost as if he was writing about Roger Federer. Over the years, Tan has been popular with critics, with the notorious exception of his first Wigmore Hall recital. ‘I don’t want to give the journalist’s name,’ says Tan, ‘especially as he is no longer with us; but he was unbelievably cruel and destructive.’

If these days he’s much less bothered by other’s opinions, it wasn’t always the case. As a student he struggled with a degree of insecurity, especially in technical matters. ‘I was made to feel that I would never have the virtuosity of the Russians,’ he says. Lessons at the ultra-demanding Menuhin School with celebrated pedagogues Nadia Boulanger and Vlado Perlemuter were invaluable but only added to the pressure.

It was with some relief when in 1974 he entered the more relaxed environs of the Royal College of Music and it was there that the requirement to learn a second instrument brought him into contact with the keyboards that would dominate his next two decades: the harpsichord and fortepiano. Tan had discovered his niche.

On guard: When Tan played Beethoven’s Broadwood piano on tour in 1992, two Interpol officers were ordered to sleep beside the instrument every night
On guard: When Tan played Beethoven’s Broadwood piano on tour in 1992, two Interpol officers were ordered to sleep beside the instrument every night

At the time, the adoption of period instruments was still in its infancy and not always taken seriously. For Tan it seemed ‘completely natural and a source of joy’ to play them, while the subsequent discovery of early pianos manufacturers such as Broadwood and Stein elicited fresh insights into the classical repertory that was to become his speciality for the next 20 years.

A performance of a Beethoven concerto with Roger Norrington at St John’s Smiths Square in 1988 prompted the then EMI doyen Peter Alward to sign Tan for the label. The plan was to record all five concertos, but this extended to virtually all the composer’s early and middle period sonatas. Tan is typically self-effacing about this major landmark and important legacy: ‘The early recordings were politely received for sure, but I don’t think all commentators really understood them. Of course now, 20 years later, the critics say these interpretations are ground-breaking,’ he says with a wry smile.

In 1992, Roger Norrington and his London Classical Players embarked on a major international tour, with Tan playing Beethoven’s own Broadwood piano. Audiences were fascinated, but may not have known that the piano was so valuable that two Interpol officers were ordered to sleep beside it every night. ‘The insurance alone cost a ridiculous amount of money,’ says Tan, ‘and this also meant that there were some cities we couldn’t travel to, among them Berlin and Paris.’

Giving up the modern pianos altogether involved ‘a process of unlearning a lot of stuff’ and shocked a number of his colleagues; so it must have been even more of a surprise when he decided to return to Steinways and their ilk in 2004. Tan’s explanation is perfectly rational: ‘I wanted a bigger sound. Early instruments had obvious limitations, especially in recording. ‘Besides, I had basically said all I wanted to say on them and missed the challenge of having other repertory to play.’

Did this mean he had to relearn the techniques he had unlearned? ‘Not really, although the tougher action of modern pianos certainly taxes the finger muscles,’ he says. ‘In fact the technique came back quickly, maybe because at the Menuhin School another of my teachers was Marcel Ciampi, who insisted his students play everything without pedal.’

The move back to the pianoforte had a positive effect on his classical repertory: ‘My playing became much more articulated and clear, not only on modern pianos but fortepianos as well,’ he says. ‘But in a way I had an advantage: one thing I always recommend to other pianists is that they try out music on the instruments for which they were written, whether or not they eventually perform on them.’ A 40th birthday concert at the Wigmore Hall, in which he played both types of pianos, proved his versatility: he wasn’t just a ‘genre pianist’ but could turn his hand to a variety of repertory with the same degree of sophistication and depth.

An entirely new avenue in Tan’s career opened up in 2005 when, after three decades of exile, he negotiated his return to his homeland, welcomed back by Singaporean officialdom as a valuable cultural asset. He says he has to judge his public appearances there carefully, but there’s no doubt that the opportunity to reconnect with his roots could not have been better timed. While musical life in the west is contracting for lack of funds, Singapore has become the latest of Asia’s artistic hubs, competing with Hong Kong for a kind of regional supremacy.

Several new concert halls have been built or restored, most famous among them the Esplanade (affectionately known as the ‘Durian’ on account of its resemblance to a spiky-skinned local fruit) where Tan sold out a 2011 recital. Musicians have been pouring into the country since the creation of the city’s Conservatory of Music, named the Yong Siew Toh after the family that underwrote its creation. Today the well-established Singapore Symphony Orchestra has plenty of competition, the latest being re:SOUND, a new chamber orchestra (modelled on the Chamber Orchestra of Europe) which contains a number of Yong Siew Toh graduates as well as musicians from other parts of Asia. A concert with Tan featuring a Mozart concerto as well as Dove’s new piece took place during the pianist’s most recent Singaporean sojourn, for which Paul Boucher trained the string section.

Tan is determined to be part of his native city’s cultural regeneration, taking on a number of young Singapore-based students as part of a personal mission to energise the musical community there. From 2012 to 2015, Tan shared his knowledge of all eras and styles of piano-playing as artist-in-residence at the conservatory and was prolific in taking part in its various projects. The process will continue. ‘One of the nicest things about reaching 60 is a feeling of inner confidence both personally and musically,’ he says. ‘It’s as if suddenly one is able to pass on knowledge that one has amassed over the years, and somehow people actually listen to you!’

Melvyn Tan will perform a Rhinegold LIVE recital of works by Beethoven, Czerny and Jonathan Dove at London’s Conway Hall on Tuesday 28 February 2017. Register online for free tickets and a complimentary drink: www.rhinegoldlive.co.uk

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