Tuesday, 28 April 2015

27 April, 2015: Melvyn Tan at Portsmouth Guildhall *****

The Arts Council Music in the Round series certainly does what it says on the tin. The stage at the Guildhall became the performance space for Melvyn Tan’s recital with the audience seated around the piano on all four sides. I was sat more or less where a page-turner would have sat had there been one which is the closest I’ve ever been to a player of Tan’s calibre and it was fascinating to observe him at work. The change of wrist position, low for Bach, higher for Field; and the pedalling including touches on the soft pedal for the Bach – and why not: if you are a fan of Bach on the modern grand piano (and I am) you might as well make use of the whole range of the instrument.

Although this was predominantly a programme of mid nineteenth century romanticism – Field, Chopin and Liszt – it was the opening Bach English Suite No 2 which delighted most, played as it was with the utmost delicacy and finesse. Although Tan becomes immersed in the music, he is not in his own bubble. The audience is drawn in and inhabits his world. This is a wonderful gift, and Tan has perhaps more of it than most. His radiant smile and witty asides do much to create a relaxed atmosphere.

Another highlight of the evening was the inclusion of pieces from Variations for Judith. These eleven variations on the Bach arrangement of Bist bu be mir for Anna Magdalena’s Notebook were commissioned in 2012 as a gift from composers who have had connections with the Spitalfields Festival for the retiring Executive Director of the festival Judith Serota. The variations are short and simple in the spirit of the pieces for the Anna Magdelena Notebook, i.e. playable by beginners. In 2014 Tan (who premiered the original) commissioned some more variations, asking for longer and more pianistic (i.e difficult) pieces. One of the variations he played was by Julian Grant who was in the audience. Having played the piece, all fast and furious semi-quaver runs, Tan remarked,
“Phew! That was something of a work-out!”
“Well you asked for it!” was the rejoinder from Grant
“Yes I did, didn’t I!” said Tan

A delightful evening of high quality pianism.

P.S. A word about Portsmouth Guildhall

It might be all Victorian neo-Palladian splendour on the outside, but the interior of the Guildhall is depressingly seedy and shabby. It is about as municipal as a municipal building can get. Walking its dark and depressingly utilitarian corridors is reminiscent of Eastern Bloc communist satellites circa 1970. Not that I was ever there, but how I imagine them to have been. And the parking in Portsmouth city centre is full price 24/7. Not the slightest concession to evening revellers. Only a performer of the same stature as Melvyn Tan would ever induce me to return.

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