Gwendolyn Mok’s Brahms: Old Instruments, Fresh Interpretations

Review by: Jed Distler


Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 9

Although I don’t know Gwendolyn Mok personally, we were classmates in the Juilliard School’s Pre-College Division in the early 1970s. Our theory teacher asked her to perform for the class from time to time, and she always livened things up with her assured artistry, even as a teenager. Fast forward to 2002, when MSR released a marvelous Ravel cycle with Mok, recorded on an 1875 Erard grand piano. Twelve years later, the pianist gives us Brahms’ late pieces played on two well-preserved and markedly different period pianos.

As Mok points out in an illuminating conversation and demonstration at the end of Disc 2 about Brahms and his pianos, the 1868 Erard used in the Op. 116 and Op. 118 pieces benefits from the instrument’s cross-strung soundboard and double escapement (the mechanism that allows the hammer to strike the string and only slightly fall back, enabling one to play repeated notes with ease). By contrast, the 1871 Streicher grand’s mellower sonority and slightly musty-sounding bass lends itself to the more consistently lyrical and sustained Op. 117 and Op. 119 selections. I suspect that the nature of these very instruments inspires Mok as much as the music itself.

In the aforementioned demonstration, Mok first plays Op. 116 No. 2 on a modern grand. When she repeats it on the Erard the bass line comes more to the fore and the basic slow tempo grows more animated and shapely. Mok’s graceful modern grand performance of Op. 119 No. 3 (the celebrated “Myra Hess” encore) emphasizes the right-hand lower voice melody, while the top voice comes out more forcefully in the Streicher reading. Her deliberation in Op. 117 No. 2 brings out the often obscured vocal quality of flowing middle voice, abetted by the Streicher’s gentle horn-like timbre.

The Streicher’s registral differentiation particularly reveals itself in the Op. 119 No. 1 Intermezzo’s slow, downward arpeggiated patterns and in the evenly balanced big chords throughout the Op. 119 No. 4 Rhapsody that often emerge too bass heavy on today’s instruments. Her intensity of articulation and following through of contrapuntal lines to their final destination truly impresses in Op. 116 No. 3, as do the full-bodied yet discreetly-pedaled textural thickets in No. 7.

In Op. 118 No. 3, Mok’s semi-detached phrasing helps to underline the dynamic contrasts between registers that are too often flattened out. She also raises the elusive harmonic tension in Op. 118 No. 1’s zig-zagging accompanying lines several notches above the smoothed-out, generalized norm. It’s interesting how the best period performances use old instruments to make familiar works sound fresh, and Gwendolyn Mok’s thoughtful, heartfelt late Brahms interpretations do that beautifully.

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Recording Details:

Album Title: The Composer's Piano
Reference Recording: Wilhem Kempff (DG); Lars Vogt (EMI); Julius Katchen (Decca)

    Fantasien Op. 116; Klavierstücke Op. 118; Drei Intermezzi Op. 117; Klavierstücke Op. 119
  • Gwendolyn Mok (piano)

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