Nelson Goerner, Jonathan Biss, Pierre-Laurent Aimard – the 29th edition of the Singapore International Piano Festival (SIPF) has lined up no shortage of pianistic firepower and insight for its audiences in June. Alongside them is a name familiar to local audiences, but with much more of his career ahead of him than behind him, the Malaysian-born pianist Tengku Irfan.

Tengku Irfan performs with Singapore Symphony
© Jack Yam | Singapore Symphony Orchestra

If you’re wondering what a 25-year-old graduate student at Juilliard is doing in such august company, try browsing the Singapore Symphony’s YouTube channel. It hosts a concert performance of Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy from May 2020, and the opening bars leave no doubt that Tengku Irfan has the measure of this under-rated piece, unique even in Beethoven’s output for its fusion of heroic nobility with the common touch.

The story behind the premiere of the Choral Fantasy, late in December 1808, has acquired legendary status: Beethoven apparently made up the piano part on the spot, having run out of time to write it down, and he played it to a dwindling audience in a freezing cold hall in Vienna at the end of a four-hour concert also featuring the premieres of his Fifth and Sixth symphonies.

Tengku Irfan performs Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.

Any soloist coming to the Fantasy for themselves inevitably feels the weight of the composer pressing on their shoulders, but as a composer and conductor as well as pianist, Irfan may grasp better than most the kind of improvisatory spirit which the Fantasy – and much else in Beethoven’s output – embodies. Another video online shows him at the age of 12, improvising a short piece with an orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi, no less. Even at 25, he has experience on his side.

All the same, a full solo recital at an established piano festival brings its own pressure. “Oh wow!” he admits. “It’s a huge honour. The expectations are certainly there.” The line of composer-pianist-conductors is a long and distinguished one, spanning at least Beethoven to Adès; it’s rather soon to place Irfan in such company, but a conversation with him discloses the makings of a thoughtful as well as a prodigiously accomplished musician.

Irfan came to music, or music came to him, unprompted, via the modest channel of a Yamaha digital piano in the family home. “My mother is a lawyer and my father is a doctor,” he says. “There were several instruments in the house, though my parents didn’t force me or my siblings learn them. I began to play around with the keyboard at the age of six or seven, listening to the pre-recorded tracks, following how the keys lit up as well as making sounds. And I became curious, and my musical journey started with this keyboard.”

Lessons were arranged, “but for some months I was working it all out for myself. I didn’t have a really strict teacher – it was more self-motivated. My parents never had to tell me to practice.” Making his own music soon evolved from playing the notes in front of him. “When I was practising, I would lose concentration after a while, and I liked to switch around the notes in the pieces I was playing, improvising on them. Composition became a natural extension of that.” Filed in the library of pre-recorded tracks alongside Scott Joplin and Star Wars, it was the Waltz Op.64 No.2 by Chopin that set Irfan on a path of dedicating his life to music.

Tengku Irfan performs with Singapore Symphony
© Jack Yam | Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Once he had acquired the rudiments of theory, Irfan found reading a score as satisfying as playing it. “Love for reading music is what made me a conductor, even at a time when I had no plans to wave my hands! I know a lot of pianists dive in at the piano and start playing, but I’m different. I am a strong believer in knowing the piece first, because then I internalise it in my ear. I need to hear it inside me before I start practising, so that I know what kind of atmosphere I am looking for.”

Just four years after his first lessons, Irfan made his concerto debut with the Malaysian Philharmonic, playing a work by the teenage Beethoven (outside the canon of the five numbered concertos). His Singapore recital in June opens with Beethoven’s Sonata Op.54. Cast in two short movements, opening with a sprightly Minuet, it’s an unusual curtain-raiser which finds the mature Beethoven at his most 18th-century, superficially similar in places to the teaching-aid Sonatinas Op.49.

“I wondered about that, to begin with,” he replies. “There’s a paradox to the sonata – it sounds archaic, but the form is novel, starting with the minuet like that. I don’t feel he was writing it as a teaching tool, because there are distinct technical challenges – the second movement is deceptively difficult! It’s like he’s trying to caricature keyboard exercises – scales, broken figurations and so on – but the sequences are really quite gnarly, and not so easy to memorise! Is the theme even a theme? It’s just a scale going up and down, but the harmonic invention is spectacular.”

Of all the composers writing in the generation after Beethoven, few felt his presence more keenly than Robert Schumann, whose Fantasie Op.17 is conceived as a tribute in sound to raise funds for and ultimately outlast a statue in Beethoven’s memory. It is a famously taxing piece for the performer, in three tightly cross-referenced movements. The demands on the listener are considerable, too – what would Irfan’s advice be for a newcomer to this piece?

“Schumann’s title is Fantasie,” he replies. “The shadow of Beethoven of course looms over him. He is attempting to reconcile a fantastical new style in which he could slide from one harmonic region to another without any transition, and a sonata-form world of ordered harmony he had inherited from Beethoven, and the piece is a dialogue between them.”

Tengku Irfan performs Cheng Jin Koh’s Tota pulchra es.

The recital’s pivotal piece is as brief (at less than five minutes) as it is virtuosic, Tota pulchra es by Cheng Jin Koh, a Singaporean composer, currently based in New York with Tengku Irfan: they married last year. The title refers to a fourth-century Catholic prayer to the Virgin Mary, and a Biblical verse from the Song of Solomon: “Thou art all fair, my love; there is no spot in thee.”

According to Irfan, “Cheng Jin’s piece ties nicely with the Beethoven Sonata and the Rudepoêma by Villa-Lobos at the end of the recital. It is in one movement, but it has an A-B structure like the Beethoven. The A section is very relentless, symbolising earthly temptation, and then the B section is very quiet, symbolising serenity. So the piece is very, very loud, and then very quiet and it dies away. The first section matches the brutality of Rudepoêma.”

It should be clear by now that this SIPF recital is no ordinary diet of sonatas and tone-pictures with a dash of showmanship (even though it includes all those elements). Irfan programmed Rudepoêma at an equally ambitious recital in Aspen in 2021, and it elicited strong reactions, as Villa-Lobos’s music tends to. “I started with excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s Seasons, then the Sixth Sonata by Galina Ustvolskaya, a Chopin Mazurka and the B major Nocturne. I also did Busoni’s Second Sonatina, and then I ended with the Villa-Lobos. There were people who loved it, there were people who hated it, but I feel like it has a very strong statement to make.”

Rudepoêma is a 20-minute tour-de-force, and a tribute to the Polish pianist Arthur Rubinstein, who promoted Villa-Lobos across Europe after encountering the composer while touring Brazil in 1921. Like Amériques (1921) by Varèse and the Concord Sonata (1915) of Ives, it’s also one of those blistering pieces of compositional virtuosity that seems to gather up all the contradictory styles and movements in music at the time and hurl them back at the listener in joyous abandon.

Simply to take on such a piece reflects a musically voracious appetite. It’s evident from the range of Irfan’s activity that very little in the musical world is foreign to him. Discussing his conducting activity, he refers more than once to Mahler, a figure who similarly gathers up everything in his musical world and makes it his own. “Right now, conducting seems to encompass all my other musical activities,” he says.

Tengku Irfan conducts
© Tengku Irfan

“Of course I’m not going to abandon the piano: it will always be a part of me. I will graduate in May 2024, and I will have been at Juilliard for half my lifetime! I did the pre-college programme, my undergraduate degree, then a Masters in piano and now a Masters in conducting. I didn’t decide at the age of eight or nine that I was going to become a conductor! But music in all its facets is how I felt I could express myself.” There is much more to Tengku Irfan than youthful promise, as Singapore audiences already know for themselves.

Singapore International Piano Festival
runs from 8th–11th June. Tengku Irfan performs at the Victoria Concert Hall on 9th June.
This article was sponsored by Singapore Symphony.