An evening of firsts in Shoreditch

My first visit to Spitalfields Music and the first time I’ve heard pianist Melvyn Tan live. More importantly, the concert included three premieres, by Rolf Hind, Judith Weir and Jonathan Dove, including a new addition to the ‘Variations for Judith’ which opened the evening.

Composed as a special gift for Judith Serota when she left the Spitalfields Festival in 2007 after nearly twenty years at the helm, the Variations comprise 11 short reflections on ‘Bist du bei mir’ (G H Stölzel arr. JS Bach, realised by David Titterington), composed by other Spitalfields Festival Artistic Directors, all people with whom Judith worked. An initial collection of seven variations was presented to Judith and a further four were added, all by composers associated with the Spitalfields Festival. The Variations hark back to a precedent probably set by J S Bach – a collection of short pieces of varying difficulty – and rather like Anna Magdalena’s Notebook, which Bach presented to his wife, the Variations for Judith were presented to Judith Serota to encourage and inspire her own piano studies.

The pieces which make up ‘Variations for Judith’ are often described as “music for amateur pianists”, and while they may be short and mostly roughly Grade 4-7 level, I would refute the suggestion that these pieces are exclusively the preserve of the amateur pianist. Nor should they be: the suite works very well as a complete concert piece. Each work is unique, portraying its composer’s distinctive compositional style and soundworld, yet they are all connected by the opening theme. In some variations the theme is obvious, in others it is fragmented or subtly veiled. The works are varied in their individual characters, some displaying sparkling wit and humour (those by Anthony Payne and Judith Weir, for example), while others are fragile, tender or lyrical (Thea Musgrave, Jonathan Dove).

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Melvyn Tan

Pianist Melvyn Tan originally premiered the ‘Variations for Judith’ in June 2012 and he is evidently very at home with this music, adept at drawing out each variation’s individual character and alert to the swiftly changing moods of the pieces. In addition to a creating an appealingly translucent sound (helped by a beautiful Steinway D and the acoustic of the venue, St Leonard’s Church), his playing was gestural and sensitive: each miniature was elegantly shaped and coloured. The newest variation by Rolf Hind, premiered at this concert, began with a fleeting sound in the bass and stamping feet, before the main theme emerged. There were chiming bells and plangent bass chords, utilising the timbre and decay of the piano.

The Variations were followed by two more premieres of works by Judith Weir and Jonathan Dove. ‘I’ve turned the page….’ by Judith Weir was a witty musical take on the phrase “I’ve turned the page”, implying that one is start afresh, and each turn of the page in the score brought fresh ideas, from a boisterous dance (page 2) to a haunting twirling melody, then a frenetic rising figure, culminating in treble flourishes and clusters redolent of a Chopin Etude.

Jonathan Dove’s ‘Catching Fire’ was written as a birthday gift for Melvyn Tan (who turned 60 this year), a work which combines elements drawn from the toccata and perpetuum mobile genres, with passages which flicker and shimmer at the far reaches of the keyboard. At times the insistent throb of the music was almost industrial in its sound, while the clever use of repetition and pedal effects called to mind other instruments such as drums and horns rather in the manner of Somei Satoh’s atmospheric ‘Incarnation II’. Tan’s sensitive pacing, dynamic shading and colouristic nuancing ensured the work remained “musical” at all times, and the piece provided an interest complement to Liszt’s three Concert Etudes, which Tan executed with understated bravura.

(picture of Melvyn Tan by Eoin Carey)