Double play

Edward Seckerson and Stephen Johnson compare notes
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The Independent Culture
The tone is just as it should be - conversational. A small, informal gathering around Mr Melvyn Tan's fortepiano: a little night music, a lot of banter, a few jokes. They're a personable crew, these Philharmonia Baroque winds. The colours are decidedly baroque, decidedly homespun (more character than finesse): bright, breathy flutes, nutty oboes, buzzy bassoons. Nicholas McGegan keeps them on their toes, the engineering goes in close, pulling focus on their every colloquialism - even when they're all trying to speak at once.

Tan himself is an engaging host, a lively arbiter. The character of his playing is in the articulation: he's a spry, wry, elegant presence with quick reflexes and bags of charm. So the gamesmanship of the outer movements fares well. The brilliant K459 finale looks forward to the "Jupiter" Symphony - dazzling counterpoint in an opera buffa context - and there's more where that came from in the last movement of K456, where Tan and McGegan take great delight in the springing of one surprise involving a remote flat key and the syncopation of clashing time-signatures.

The slow movements don't quite do it for me. I can relate to Tan's shy, hesitant phrasing in the Andante of K456 (the liner notes rightly allude to Barbarina's "pin" aria from Figaro), but in K459 I am put in mind of a light, lyric soprano who might fill her phrases more gratefully if only she had more voice. Meaning that Tan is, I believe, a more expressive player than his instrument will allow. I hear that the year ahead is to bring close encounters with the modern piano. Today a Bosendorfer, tomorrow a Steinway? We'll see if I'm right. ES

For those with ears to hear, the 18th-century fortepiano has plenty of intriguing things to say about Mozart's piano-writing. The modern "string of pearls" legato is out of the question; instead, the attention is focused on minute details, projected in a bizarre, desiccated, twangy tone. Quite a few modern pianists will admit to having learnt things from hearing the forte-piano. But will it survive as a rival to the modern piano, as the harpsichord has in Bach?

I doubt it, even after Melvyn Tan's runaway success in Carl Davis's period- pastiche theme to BBC TV's Pride and Prejudice. The instrument can be brilliant, and even strangely affecting - quick decay on the high notes isn't always a disadvantage, it can be rather poignant. But the modern concert grand has spoilt us in Mozart: it sounds out effortlessly above the orchestra, and it sustains the illusion of singing far more seductively - and it doesn't clatter.

There are positive things here: the quick-fire exchanges between soloists and winds in the finale of K456 come very close to the witty intimacy of Mozartian chamber music. And in the slow movements it is refreshing to hear the expression purged of late-romantic pathos. But what does Tan offer in its place? Not a lot, I'm afraid - more manner than inner intensity.

Of course, we shouldn't presume that, just because the slow movement of K456 is in G minor, it has to sound like a scene from an Aeschylean tragedy - there's humour even in this music. But this is just bland. If you want to hear how much more the fortepiano can do, go to Malcolm Bilson on Archiv. If you prefer the pianoforte, there's Murray Perahia on Sony, or the underrated Howard Shelley on Chandos. There may be lessons for us in these performances, but not much else. SJ

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