Members of Milverton Concert Society enjoyed a special treat at St Michael’s Church on 23 September when their distinguished Honorary President, pianist Melvyn Tan, and the brilliant young cellist, Guy Johnston, performed an enthralling programme of masterpieces from the 19th century.
Beethoven’s Sonata in C, spare and impressionistic in its ground-breaking style, received an interpretation full of finesse and delicacy, with radiant cello tone. From the very first notes – a solo cello tune – the ear was captivated by Beethoven’s ability to generate intense emotion with economy of means. Two pieces by the young Rachmaninov combined soaring melodies with dramatic piano writing, giving a foretaste of the virtuoso composer’s later works. The second piece, Danse Orientale, recalled the fascination with Central Asia and beyond of many Russian composers of the period, such as Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov. Mendelssohn’s D major Sonata, imbued with cheerfulness and good humour, exploited the capacity of the cello for both passionate, sustained melody and technical virtuosity, while the piano part was full of the glittering cascades of notes which, in so much of this composer’s work, have been the delight – and terror – of generations of pianists. Both artists surmounted the challenges with nonchalant ease and infectious enjoyment. Particularly noticeable was the skill with which Mendelssohn used the cello – an instrument which usually supplies the bass – both to underpin the piano part and to sing out as a soloist in its own right. But perhaps the highlight of the evening was the D Major Sonata by Anton Rubinstein, a famous pianist who wanted – judging by this work, with justice – to be remembered as a composer. Full of tenderness, passion and charm, it offered a fascinating stylistic contrast. The final movement recalled the sparkling effervescence of Mendelssohn (whom Rubinstein met on several occasions), whereas the slow movement, both heartfelt and tinged with melancholy, clearly looks forward to the music of Tchaikovsky.
To play chamber music successfully requires not only mastery of one’s instrument but also the ability to relate instinctively and sympathetically to the other musician. In the case of cello and piano there is a special challenge in that the low register of the cello can be overwhelmed by the piano, and great care and skill is needed to avoid this. In all these respects Melvyn Tan and Guy Johnston produced music-making of the highest order. The near capacity audience responded with stormy applause.