Melvyn Tan | Cheltenham Premiere July 2016

Cheltenham Premiere July 2016


Taken after the Premiere of ' Catching Fire ' with Jonathan Dove at the Cheltenham Festival July 2016

Taken after the Premiere of ‘ Catching Fire ‘ with Jonathan Dove at the Cheltenham Festival July 2016

During the early 1990′s I was running a group called the New Mozart Ensemble and we commissioned Jonathan to write us a piece for our first tour of the USA. The programmes naturally included Mozart, so Jonathan decided that he would do a modern take on the composer, imagining what it might have been like if Mozart had travelled to the US with us and soaked up all the sounds and noises of the big city, in this case New York. The result was Airmail Letter From Mozart, with its fine articulated passages , certain nods to Jazz and Blues, a few Indian and Asian quotes, this piece was particularly well judged for our group and particularly for me and my style of playing.
I have since recorded it with the London Mozart Players on NAXOS and should be available shortly.
So it seemed only natural that Jonathan was an obvious choice when it came to choosing someone to write me up a Birthday piece, or in this case whip up a storm!!
The piece was recently premiered at the Cheltenham Festival in July 2016. Entitled ‘Catching Fire’ it comprises 2 slow bell like episodes interrupted by bursts of more energetic sections eventually igniting into a final section which sets itself alight! It is in part jazzy, rhapsodical, improvisatory, sometimes minimal, but never never dull. In the course of the coming season, it will be heard in London in Winter of 2016, in Holland, Singapore and Australia, and more performances of it are planned for the coming seasons.


“I wish I had weathered the years as well as Melvyn Tan who is just three months away from his 60th birthday. As he bounced onto the platform at the beginning of his recital he looked only half his age and the brilliance of his performance suggested his youthful energy is undiminished.

The pieces in Beethoven’s Opus 126 may be termed bagatelles but, though brief, they are by no means trifling, and Tan captured the contrasting moods to perfection from the gently flowing Andante which opens the series to the furious concluding Presto with an exquisite melody which embedded in it.

It seems that the piano sonata which followed started out as a bagatelle, before the composer made the wise decision to extend it. The concise first movement started unobtrusively enough but Tan soon began to pile on the intensity, following it with with a prestissimo which leapt around. In the theme and variations which complete the work Beethoven set out to exploit the singing qualities found in the more modern pianos of his time. Tan followed this intention to the letter making good use of his expertise in 18th century music which played such a major role in his early musical career.

I well recall hearing Tan play a set of concertante variations by Jonathan Dove entitled An Airmail Letter from Mozart. Mr Dove’s latest work for the pianist, Catching Fire, is on a much larger scale however: it focuses on flames in all their aspects from the flickering light of a candle to the flames which get out of control and become a destructive conflagration. “Three times we stare at a still flame, but each time it comes to near something else, and catches fire,” writes Mr Dove. And so we heard passages of quiet lyricism alternating with furious pounding on the keyboard, culminating in an astonishing toccata of such power that I had to peer round to make sure that Pittville Pump Room was not ablaze. “Controlled strength” was how one of my fellow concert-goers described the work …. and the performance.

There was no let up in emotional power in the final item on the programme, Liszt’s Sonata in B minor, regarded by many as his finest work. It is a work of stunning musical architecture, a sonata within a sonata, as well as an emotional roller-coaster. Its whispered beginning built up the audience’s expectations which were amply rewarded as Tan unleashed a soaring melody played with passion and tenderness contrasted with a more lyrical second theme. The slow movement, which formed the start of the development  was relaxed and persuasive, reminiscent of Rachmaninov in his more intimate moments one felt, until one realises that Liszt was a fore-runner of the Russian composer and indeed a trailblazer for many modern 20th century composers (even Mr Dove?) whether they realise it or not. The fugal scherzo was robustly played before the full-blooded recapitulation marked the conclusion of an astonishing emotional and spiritual journey. It ended with a master-stroke: an interlude of sublime calm like light penetrating through stained glass.

After this truly remarkable performance Melvyn Tan looked utterly exhausted and perhaps nearer to 40 than 30 – but he still had sufficient energy in reserve for a substantial encore: Liszt’s Un sospiro.”

Roger Jones

The Cheltenham Music Festival continues until Sunday July 17 for further information