Melvyn Tan – Photo by Eoin Carey

Melvyn Tan plays Variations for Judith at Cheltenham Festival

A new set of pieces Variations for Judith got its second complete performance during Melvyn Tan’s solo piano concert at Cheltenham Festival on Sunday, July 8, the new works being sneaked in to a programme of Bach, Schumann and Chopin. The concert started with two announcements. Firstly, that the queueing arrangements for free coffee in the interval had been ‘streamlined’ since what I assume had been a horribly violent free-for-all at Friday’s concert! Secondly, that this concert was also to be part of a unique scientific experiment led by Professor Aaron Williamon. Tan was to be trussed up (discreetly) with a state-of-the-art monitoring device to explore the physical effects of elite performance. Tan, seemingly unaffected by extraneous attachments, bounded to the stage, lit by a tall space-age chrome lamp to his left and, just above him, a massive chandelier in all its baroque resplendence.

Melvyn Tan - Photo by Eoin Carey

Melvyn Tan – Photo by Eoin Carey

Variations for Judith started life in 2007 as a surprise gift organised by Diana Burrell for Judith Serota. Burrell was then Artistic Director and Serota the outgoing Executive director at London’s Spitalfields Festival. These were a set of variations on a theme (Bist du bei mir from Bach’s ‘Little Keyboard Book’) written by current and former artistic directors of the festival during Serota’s 20 years at the helm. They were not only written for Serota, but for her to play as a keen amateur pianist. The project was widened in 2011 with pieces added by four more composers, and then today two more variations were included by competition-winning Steven Doran and Francis Pott.

The theme (realised by organist David Titterington) set out a blank canvas, stripped of any ornaments or unnecessary notes. The different voices and approaches to the brief did mean that a sense of overall structure – the logical flow from one variation to the next wasn’t there. Rather we visited different characters, talking in different languages, but came away humming the same tune. The composers generally behaved themselves by keeping to an ‘intermediate’ level, which again demonstrated that writing easy music is hard and tends to focus the technique of composers.

The variations began with church bells. Stephen John’s ‘Spitalfields Echoes’ turned the theme into ringing chimes, the melody heard through mists of resonance. Anthony Payne’s muscular canon used bitonality to set up a dialectic battle between the straight theme and its shifted, dissonant accompaniment. Tarik O’Regan returned us to a wistful atmosphere, gradually finding the veiled melody through a wandering line, breaking occasionally into richer harmony. Tan brought out the wit and charm of Judith Weir’s piece, bravely simple but getting a decent laugh. Anthony Burton and Thea Musgrave kept to a standard variation approach with the theme recognisable, while Michael Berkeley’s taut and intense lullaby used a middle fragment of the theme. Diana Burrell’s offering was spacious and beautifully crafted; a voyage from consonance to dissonance. We were then transported to a cruise liner piano bar listening to someone in an ill-fitting white tuxedo for Richard Rodney Bennett’s Little Elegy. I’m not sure I approved. Peter Maxwell Davies’ jacket fitted better with a confident, lyrical variation using his trademark baroque and blues threads, while Jonathan Dove’s variation was a good one to end with. Although he used familiar ideas, the opening triads rising like vapour above the LH melody stayed with me.

It was good to hear well-chosen new variations by Steven Doran (aged 17) and Francis Pott. Doran’s confident piece explored whole-tone scales, while Pott produced a poignant, pastoral take on the theme.

What struck me during the rest of the concert was how Tan made the older pieces in the concert sound modern. He liberated the dancing quirkiness of Bach’s English Suite No 2. His generous pedalling during Schumann’s Fantasiestücke let the dissonance bleed through a final cadence to make the final chord deliciously, dangerously rich. The final exhilarating Chopin (Scherzo No 2) had leaping-off-the-piano-stool drama, highlighting the use of extremes of register heard in the earlier contemporary pieces. The modern sounding harmony of the repeated cadences in the middle section sounded even more fresh and startling in Tan’s hands.

Serota told me after the concert that it was “wonderful to have a pianist of such calibre playing new music.” She had the idea of asking Melvyn Tan to perform these new pieces after seeing his recent Cage / Scarlatti concert, and chose him over other contemporary specialist pianists as “he would play them more than once”. Five times this summer, in fact.

Melvyn Tan and Judith Serota - Photo by Andy Newbold

Melvyn Tan and Judith Serota – Photo by Andy Newbold

While this wasn’t a ground-breaking concert, it had warmth and generosity. Like the lamp and the chandelier, we need new, unfamiliar music to respond to, re-imagine, contradict and help illuminate the old stuff. This concert may have given scientific insight into the physiological processes involved in elite performance, but it also showed 1) that living composers need passionate advocates like Serota and 2) that the old music benefits from the new. We find different things in the familiar classics, heard in the light of newer, stranger works. The threads between the two need to be maintained for either to survive.

Variations for Judith is published by Chester Music (including a donation to Dimbleby Cancer Care). Recording on NMC. 

Richard Barnard is a UK-based composer, conductor and educator, writing music for opera, dance and chamber groups. Follow him on twitter: @richardmbarnard.