First published on 14 Nov 2012. Updated on 14 Nov 2012.
It was the classical music controversy that rocked the nation: after leaving Singapore in 1969 at the age of 13 to study at London’s prestigious Yehudi Menuhin School, Singaporean-born concert pianist Melvyn Tan returned to his birthplace in 2005 to care for his aging parents – and instead of facing jail time for defaulting on his National Service duties, the naturalised British citizen was given a $3,000 fine. Though the Ministry of Defence claimed that no preferential treatment was given to the international piano star, the subsequent public uproar when news broke in 2008 resulted in the cancellation of what would have been Tan’s comeback concert that year. It would take another four years for Tan to finally make his Singapore concert debut, performing with the SSO in 2011.
Tan, now 56, remains tight-lipped about the controversy, but the 2011 performance is naturally one that remains close to his heart: ‘It was a very poignant moment for me, and not least for my parents who had been waiting so long for that moment,’ he says. ‘It also helped that the Esplanade is one of the best halls anywhere, and the response was terrific.’ Born in 1956 – nine years before Singapore became an independent nation – Tan displayed an early classical talent, winning a local scholarship which sent him to the Yehudi Menuhin School. He followed that with a stint at the Royal College of Music, going on to build an impressive career playing the fortepiano, a predecessor to the modern piano also played by Classicalera masters such as Schubert, Mozart and Beethoven. His subsequent recordings quickly earned Tan global fame within the classical music industry – among the most notable of these is a recording with the London Classical Players on Beethoven’s very own 1817 Broadwood fortepiano.
Not content to being limited as a fortepiano specialist, Tan has also released recordings on the modern grand piano, focusing on Debussy and Romantic-era chamber music. Still, the tunes of the Classical period are never far from his heart: ‘My long experience with early pianos has taught me a lot about performance practice, especially the earlier Classical period with Mozart and Beethoven,’ he says. ‘I never consciously imitate a fortepiano when I am performing on a modern piano, but I do try to adhere to the relevant style as much as possible. And of course the modern piano has an infinitely larger palette of colours and possibilities and it’s there to use if one wants to.’
Tan is back in town for another performance with the SSO – and this time, he’s brought a famous colleague along for the ride: British cellist Steven Isserlis. In addition to his virtuoso playing, Isserlis, 54, is also known for writing several children’s books (reflected in the cheeky humour on his website, www.stevenisserlis.com). The two have collaborated previously in numerous recitals together, as well as on a recording of Mendelssohn sonatas for cello and piano, released by EMI Classics in 1994. Commenting on the professional and personal relationship that the two share, Isserlis says of Tan: ‘He’s been a great friend for many years. He’s a great partner to record with, and also an artist who loves his audiences. He’s a very charismatic performer.’ Tan adds: ‘Steven and I have been friends for the best part of 30 years – his sister Rachel was with me at the Royal College of Music and his other sister Annette produced my Debussy Preludes CD a few years back. We try to see each other in London for get-togethers but with busy schedules it’s not always easy!’
The two musicians have their work cut out for themselves on this trip – they’re presenting an all-Beethoven recital on 15 November, which includes the composer’s first two sonatas for cello and piano, while Isserlis will also be performing the Walton Concerto with the SSO on 17 November. ‘The Beethoven cello sonatas are challenging as a whole,’ says Isserlis. ‘[The programme is] a real journey – and very well-balanced, I might add – with two from his early period, one from his middle period and two from his late period. They show all the key moments of his life. In contrast with the later ones, the first two sonatas are not as difficult for the cello, but hugely challenging for the piano. The second one is almost operatic: it’s so theatrical, so dramatic.’
Preferential treatment or not, Singapore will soon get to hear two world-class musicians offer their take on the sonatas. With Tan and Isserlis, partners of virtuosity who also happen to be great friends, the concert promises to be both a personal milestone for both performers, as well as an exciting evening for all who will witness it.
Melvyn Tan and Steven Isserlis perform at the YST Conservatory Concert Hall on 15 Nov.