When pianist Melvyn Tan performed at Yip Wing-sie's sold-out debut concert as the Hong Kong Sinfonietta's new music director in 2002, classical music fans might have been surprised to see him playing Schumann's Piano Concerto on a modern instrument. For almost two decades, the London-based Singaporean was an advocate of the fortepiano, the 18th-century precursor to the modern grand piano. Today, however, he's firmly back to playing the modern piano, and will stage a two-hour concert with the Sinfonietta on Saturday night that will feature two Beethoven concertos - the second and the fifth - as well as Bartok's Divertimento. The next night, he'll perform an equally challenging solo recital featuring works by Schubert, Debussy, Messiaen and three pieces by Chopin. Trained as a professional pianist, Tan bought his first fortepiano in the early 1980s, when the instrument was rarely played. 'Nobody was doing it at that time,' he says. 'I had to teach myself to play the fortepiano.' Tan says he was fascinated by the instrument's light tone and was determined to carve a niche for himself with it. The career move was difficult, however. In the musical world, there's a lot of competition and it takes a long time to establish yourself, he says. Although he knew his specialisation might harm his career, Tan says he believed audiences would like to hear Mozart and Beethoven on a fortepiano, the composers' working instrument. 'I was convinced that it was important to do it,' he says. Tan was right. His performances and recordings in the late 1980s and early 90s created new perspectives on Mozart and Schubert. Most famously, he recorded all of Beethoven's piano concertos for EMI on the fortepiano. Now even star pianists such as Mitsuko Uchida and Andras Schiff have played fortepiano in public. In 1995, Tan returned to the modern piano. 'I wanted to break new ground - to do something else,' he says. The fortepiano has a limited repertoire of music, written within a span of about 80 years. 'I began to miss playing, say, Schumann's concerto, with big orchestras,' Tan says. 'With the fortepiano you can never play with a big [modern] orchestra.' He says he also missed the French impressionistic music he learned at the Menuhin School in England, which he attended from when he was 12, in 1968, until he went to the Royal College of Music, 10 years later. Tan has now expanded his repertoire to include contemporary works, and says his fortepiano experience has brought clarity to his piano playing. 'When he moved from the fortepiano to the modern piano, he continued to play Beethoven,' says Sinfonietta marketing manager Ann Wong. 'But because he used to specialise in an older, more delicate instrument, his playing and phrasing is much cleaner and more precise.' Although Tan still owns two fortepianos, he holds only occasional recitals - and never practices beforehand. 'I never practice on the fortepiano nowadays, even when I'm going to hold a recital. I just need to practice on a light modern piano,' he says. Tan grew up in Britain, and says he's now assimilated there. 'Being of Asian origin has never been a problem in my career,' he says. 'But as I grow older, I become more attracted to the works of Debussy and Ravel, and maybe there's an oriental influence in their music that appeals to me.' Tan's CD of Debussy's Preludes will be released soon, but he hasn't made a major recording for some years. 'I prefer giving concerts to [studio] recordings,' he says. Melvyn Tan with the Hong Kong Sinfonietta, June 5, 8pm, City Hall, $100, $200, $300, Urbtix. Melvyn Tan solo recital, June 6, 8pm, City Hall, $160, $280.