The Queen's Hall was encouragingly better filled than might have been expected for this recital, where Singapore-born pianist Melvyn Tan coupled John Cage's Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano with sonatas by Scarlatti. One might not expect two composers from such different time periods to work well together. Tan explained it on the basis of their shared use of binary form, but actually one of the odd effects of the recital was to make much of Scarlatti's music sound remarkably modern.
John Cage's Sonatas and Interludes once again fitted in with Festival 2011's eastern theme. Indeed, I've had a little mini-cycle of eastern musical experiences over the last three days beginning with the Jonathan Harvey tryptich on Saturday night, followed by Lee Yi-chin's score for last night's King Lear and now this. I feel like I'm beginning to get more inside this quite different sound world now. By the alterations, Cage enables the piano to create gamelan and percussive effects, alongside more traditional piano sounds. Tan himself described it as mesmerising and this seems to me a good term. As at Lear and in the Harvey pieces, it can feel a little repetitious, but as with those other performances I think you have to surrender to the style in which there is much which is beautiful and beguiling.
Tan interspersed the Scarlatti and the Cage. Consequently when he started in on the first Scarlatti sonata the contrast with the sound world of Cage's prepared piano was quite startling. I've occasionally heard Scarlatti's sonatas before and they hadn't made a huge impression on me. In Tan's hands it all sounded quite different. There was virtuosity, playfulness, and a sense of joy. Occasionally I wondered if Tan was interpreting the pieces just a bit too idiosyncratically in order to point up a connection to Cage but equally it is clear that the music often doesn't do what you might expect it to. At times too I felt that Tan didn't quite seem to have the overall shape of the sonatas completely in focus and the virtuousity didn't always sound completely secure, though the programme did emphasise the complexity of the cross-overs especially in the final sonata. But, having said that the bulk of Tan's playing was impressive and a pleasure to listen to.
At the end Tan gave us an encore by an unidentified French composer (I thought it might have been Ravel or possibly Satie, but I didn't know the piece). [NOTE - Belated thanks to Kenneth Walton in The Scotsman who identified encore as being by Debussy.] It was refreshing to have a change of mood after Scarlatti and Cage, and Tan conjured up what I think of as being a hot-house Parisian world, glittering and suggestive. It would be great to hear him again in a programme of that repertoire.
Once more, this was a programme which opened my ears to new sounds, but it made me wonder again about the ways in which the Festival has gone about marketing itself this year. Like the Harvey I thought that this could also have made a good late night concert – although probably too long with the inclusion of the Scarlatti. Might that have brought in a broader audience? Also, I am puzzled as to why the Festival's marketing team didn't make more of the commonalities of musical sound worlds one could experience over this opening weekend. Given that none of these events have sold out, might it not have been worth trying some packages – pair an operatic King Lear with an orchestral piano for example. The Festival is doing some striking things this year, I'm not sure it's doing the best job of selling the experience.