“With Mozart, the fortepiano is so much a part of the texture of the whole piece that it’s really one with the orchestra,” fortepianist Melvyn Tan wrote in Limelight. “Every now and again it surges up to play a wonderful melody, but then it goes back again into the texture.”
Tan brought these ideas to life in his performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 18, K456 – written in 1784, probably for the extraordinary blind pianist (and organist, singer and composer) Theresia von Paradis for her Paris tour – with period instrument band the Australian Haydn Ensemble. Performing on a Walter & Sohn replica by historical keyboard maker Chris Maene, Tan was as much a member of the ensemble as he was its director, leading from the keyboard. Hunched forward over the keyboard, his nimble solo entry sprung to life out of the silence that followed the opening orchestral tutti – the cleverness of Mozart’s orchestration is much more apparent when performed with period instruments, and changes in register take on a significance often lost on the modern concert grand.
In Tan’s hands the Allegro vivace was bouncy and characterful, the fortepianist moving seamlessly between dispatching florid solo lines and conducting the ensemble. Tan breathed life and momentum into the insistent repeated notes of the second movement before the music unravelled into wider ranging melodic material, his tone crisp without being dry. His bell-like notes with horn in the final bars were a highlight, as were Simon Rickard’s athletic bassoon lines. The final movement was playfully assertive, Tan spinning notes with rich detail and a light, devil-may-care breeziness to the technical challenges, his cadenza a quick-fingered prelude to Mozart’s quirky entry into the concerto’s final bars.
Tan’s performance of one of the under appreciated gems of Mozart’s concerto output encouraged close listening from the audience, not least because of the lower volume and therefore more subtle textures created by his instrument. His contributions to the orchestral tuttis were so subtle as to be inaudible – at least at a conscious level – and even the relative intimacy of City Recital Hall felt perhaps a little on the large side for this performance.
Tan’s performance was bookended by two other works written for Parisian audiences: the Australian premiere of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges’s Symphony in D, Op. 11 No 2, and Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No 85 La Reine, one of the six “Paris” symphonies commissioned, and conducted, by Saint-Georges. Saint-Georges, who was the son of a wealthy plantation owner and his African slave Nanon, rose through the ranks of Parisian society as a renowned fencer and musician, became a close friend of Queen Marie Antoinette and may have become music director at the Paris Opera were it not for a petition against him based on his ancestry.
The AHE dispatched the Op. 11 No 3 Symphony with lively vigour, the finely spun sound of the first violins offsetting the earthy power of the tuttis. Amy Power’s mellow-toned oboe was a feature of the first movement, colouring the string lines, while the Andante was sweetly melancholy. The final movement, which the AHE launched into from the second without coming up for air, fizzed with energy, Saint-Georges’s symphonic writing imbued with something of Haydn’s humour.
The light-footed works of the first half were offset by Haydn’s weightier La Reine (The Queen) in the second, the AHE musicians leaning into the ascending scalic passages and driving accents of Haydn’s first movement. Graceful slides and bright ornaments from Melissa Farrow’s flute marked the second movement, while spikey accents punctuated the Menuetto. The syncopation of the finale gave it an exciting, bustling momentum, the musicians pressing ever forward.
The AHE were in fine form in this concert, with precise ensemble-work across the board and a rich sound in the strings. The winds were a particular highlight, despite occasional minor intonation issues, bringing plenty of colour, shape and energy to their often-exposed solo lines. An encore, final dance movement by Saint-Georges, brought the evening of interesting, neatly programmed repertoire and fine playing to a close.