Witnessing concert pianist Melvyn Tan perform — either with the Buskaid Soweto String orchestra or alone on stage for the Johannesburg Musical Society — as he did on the weekend, is the kind of experience that will makesyou believe there is a God, after all. Tan has a magical relationship with the music and his piano that seduces his audience. He holds the notes in his hand as though they were sacred water, and he caresses his piano keys and touches you with his music in a way that you will never forget.
A relatively regular visitor to South Africa, Singapore-born London resident Tan was another of this year’s Johannesburg International Mozart Festival’s unequivocal draw-cards. He spoke to My View, a few days before his concert, focusing on the blessed education he received in London, the value of giving back and the infinity of Schubert and Messiaen.
His concerts in Johannesburg were immensely special: “This is my first time to perform with Buskaid; it’s the first time Buskaid, founded by Rosemary Nalden in 1997, performs with a pianist. I’ve known Rosemary for 30 years. She played with the London Classical Players, under Roger Norrington, with whom I did all my EMI recordings of Beethoven. When she first started to come to South Africa to run Buskaid, we remained huge admirers of her project. A few years ago, my partner Paul Boucher, research director of the Montagu Music Collection at Boughton House, Northamptonshire, brought them to England for some concerts he was organising; it started the ball rolling.
“Since then, they’ve done really well. Last year they came to England and we discussed the idea of a piano concerto. I said, why not? I’ve heard them perform a lot; they don’t often play Mozart: I wasn’t sure what to expect in our first rehearsal, but it was wonderful. They’re such lovely kids, and their performance gets better and better. Last year, in England, they played a suite by Rameau and if I closed my eyes I could have sworn it was a professional orchestra. We were gobsmacked.”
Tan also has a professional passion for piano history. Most of his older recordings were performed on period pianos – from Mozart’s time and Beethoven’s. “The fortepiano is what the piano was, before it developed into the modern instrument, which dates from 1860s. Mozart’s piano was much smaller than the piano you or I would recognise as such. It’s a five octave instrument; wooden in construction, so the action is much lighter and therefore the way you play is very different. I did a lot of my EMI recordings on the fortepiano, which is not to be confused with the harpsichord, an instrument which originates from the 17th century and which is plucked, rather than struck.
“But since then, I have gone back to playing modern piano and repertory, because every artist likes to feel stretched artistically.”
Baulking at the moniker ‘prodigy’ Tan explains that he started piano as a five-year-old in Singapore. “I came to England when I was about 11 and was offered a place at London’s prestigious Yehudi Menuhin School of Music, and basically I stayed there: I have never gone back to Singapore to live. But I do go back now to teach and coach students and also to perform. I didn’t come from a particularly musical family, but my sister who is much older than me played the piano, so I kind of followed. That was how I started to play.
“I wasn’t encouraged to be an independent child, but I was, actually, very independent. When the chance came for me to go to the Menuhin school, I recognised it as a chance in a lifetime. Most of my teachers were French. One was a pupil of Debussy, another, a pupil of Ravel… The wonder of those roots and that education has never left me. Being at the school, it was like we were all part of a family. That ethos still exists – even though Yehudi has died. It’s not a competitive environment: that’s not what you’re taught. Instead, you’re taught to make chamber music and how to listen to everyone else.
“That’s the crux of music making. And it’s lovely. Yehudi was the most wonderful man. He taught us that there’s no such thing as being just a musician. You have to be a person, a human being, first.”
Tan ponders the idea of a favourite composer. “It’s difficult: It would be Schubert. Or Mozart. No, Schubert. If there’s one composer I want to play until I drop dead, it is Schubert. The music has that feeling of eternity about it. It comes from nowhere and it goes to infinity. You could go on playing that music forever.”
But he continues on a stream of consciousness to another love: twentieth century composer Olivier Messiaen, recognised for – amongst other things – transcribing birdsong.
“Messiaen changed my life when I performed his Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jésus – the twenty gazes of Christ. It’s a cycle based on various writings from the bible, as well as Messiaen’s personal views of Christ and Catholicism. He started writing it when he was interred in a prisoner of war camp in Nazi-controlled France, in 1943. He wrote it for Yvonne Loriod, whom he married in 1961 and who was the first person who performed it. It was only in the 1960s that the work was recorded and people began to see it as a monument of twentieth century piano music.
On the idea of playing two performances in one day, which he did yesterday, he grins: “Everyone thinks I’m crazy; it was the only way I could do it. I have had worse days: The worst is flying in and doing a concert, on the same day, with jetlag. Funnily enough when you are tired, you play best: you don’t have time to worry about nerves or memory… you just get on and do it. There is no other distraction in your brain. God takes over.”