Wednesday 24th July 2019 – summer music at the “Cathedral of the Downs”

To Alfriston on a warm summer evening. Another musical joy of living in East Sussex is the annual South Downs Summer Music International Festival (formerly the Alfriston Summer Music Festival) which I note is now in its 14th Year. It takes place in and around the lovely village of Alfriston, mainly at St. Andrew’s Church, often referred to as the Cathedral of the Downs. It is a large cruciform 14th Century church with a tower over the crossing, topped by a rather squat spire. It is shown off to perfection by being situated on raised ground at the rear of a grassed close known as the Tye.

Mr. and Mrs. MAE, being creatures of habit, had their usual pre-concert light supper and a glass of wine at the George Hotel, one of two 15th Century inns facing one another in the High Street. On a warm evening we enjoyed an original “sharing board” with feta cheese. olives, artichokes, hummus, and tzatziki on the terrace, before walking to the Tye to find the church very full, meaning we were unable to take up our usual pew on the left hand side of the nave which gives a view of the keyboard. No matter – it was wonderful to see the church so packed and we later learned that it was the largest audience the Festival had ever had.

I had seen Melvyn Tan perform before at the Southend-on-Sea Music Club on Saturday 11th March 1995 at the Plaza Centre – I’ve just found the programme. At that time he was specialising in the fortepiano, the precursor of the modern instrument which was popular in the 18th and early 19th Centuries. On that occasion he was accompanying Eric Hoeprich, an American who played a clarinet of the same period. They performed Rossini, Weber, Schumann and Schubert. Since then Tan has gone back to the modern piano, in this case a superb Steinway maintained by the company themselves. The programme was in keeping with the capabilities of a more powerful instrument. Before the interval we were treated to four broadly programmatic pieces under the overall title of Water and Fire. Sensibly dressed, given the weather, in a casual shirt and trousers Tan started with Liszt’s Fountains at the Villa D’Este. This describes the gardens of the palace at Tivoli built by Cardinal D’Este in the second half of the 16th Century. According to Tan, Liszt stayed at the Villa in the 1870s and his room had a view of the extraordinary fountains. Some say it is the first ever impressionist piece of music, predating Debussy and Ravel’s. Full of trills and arpeggios suggesting flowing water, it achieves its descriptive purpose with ease. It is a part of Liszt’s three suites entitled Annees de Pelerinage, where he describes “his strongest sensations and liveliest impressions” from his travels.

Continuing the theme he then played Debussy’s Reflections in the Water from Images which he described to us as like a pebble being dropped into a pond. Again bright trills in the right hand, here combined with weighty chords in the left which gave the piece structure. And then the same composer’s Poissons D’Or - what else? Despite the seeming insubstantial and “wafty” nature of these pieces Tan left us in no doubt that we were in the presence of a mature pianist entirely comfortable and confident in his abilities. Perfect fare for a hot evening. The final piece of the first half was something of far greater substance. Jonathan Dove (recently appointed CBE) is one of Britain’s leading composers. His Catching Fire was written for Tan’s sixtieth birthday for him to perform at the Cheltenham Festival. Tan told D he “would like a workout” and a workout it certainly is. It is full of diverse influences including Debussy, jazz, and the minimalism of John Adams. Dove creates an astounding sound world. It starts very quietly like the sound of small bells, and gets louder with quite fast high and low passages interspersed with more simple interludes and jazzy runs. There a lots of closely woven repetitions. The piece is an absolute tour de force showing Tan’s virtuosity and sensitivity to the full, though I also noted that it was just a little long for the quantity of ideas that it contains.

After a break for well-earned refreshments Tan returned, but this time he was joined by the Benyounes quartet. They are four young women who are the mainstay of, and indeed the organisers of the festival. They were Zara Benyounes and Jenny Sacha (violins), Sara Roberts (Viola) and Kim Vaughan (‘cello). Jenny is a temporary replacement for Emily Holland who had recently had a baby. They accompanied Tan in Chopin’s second Piano Concerto (!). This was a new idea to me though there are several recordings on the internet of a version for piano and string quartet arranged by Polish pianist Bertlomiej Kominek. We weren’t told, but I expect this is the version we heard. Overall it was a very pleasing and successful performance with much interplay between keyboard and strings, though I sensed that the quartet got a little lost at some points during the first movement. I’m sure more rehearsal time would have rectified this. The second and third movements seemed to segue with the former having a delicious lilting romanticism almost reminiscent of Rachmaninov, although it was written over 40 years before the Russian master’s birth. The third movement preserved the tapping on the strings with the wood of the bow of the original version, and a jaunty cafe music like dance tune heralded the final coda which showed Tan’s technical ability and verve to full advantage.

This was a memorable concert with some imaginative programming. I certainly will aim to see Melvyn Tan perform again soon - perhaps at next year’s festival. (*****)

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