In 2013 pianist Gwendolyn Mok launched a project with the MSR Classics label entitled The Composer’s Piano. Mok is Coordinator of Keyboard Studies at San Jose State University School of Music and Dance in California. The university also hosts a Beethoven Center, which not only supports research based on the life and work of Ludwig van Beethoven but also provides a home for a Historical Keyboard Collection that spans 300 years of keyboard history, including clavichords, harpsichords, and fortepianos. Mok’s project thus grew out of the fact that her “home base” provided her with access to pianos from both the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that would have been contemporary instruments for many of the major composers in music history.
Her first release, which came out in March of 2013, was a two-CD set spanning the four collections of piano music that Johannes Brahms composed towards the end of his life, Opus 116, which he titled Fantasien, Opus 117, called Drei Intermezzi, and Opus 118 and Opus 119, called simply Klavierstücke with six pieces in Opus 118 and four in Opus 119. This was followed, in December of last year, by the release of Legacy: The Spirit of Beethoven, an album that coupled an early Beethoven sonata with Franz Liszt’s transcription of his Opus 98 An die ferne Geliebte (to the distant beloved) song cycle and also included original works by Carl Czerny and Felix Mendelssohn. Two pianos were involved in making the Brahms album. An 1868 Érard was used for Opus 116 and Opus 118, and an 1871 Streicher was used for Opus 117 and Opus 119. On the Beethoven album the Érard was used for the Mendelssohn selection, his Opus 54 “Variations Serieuses” (even though it was made over twenty years after Mendelssohn’s death), and Czerny’s Opus 647 nocturne in E-flat major, also composed (in 1841) before the instrument was constructed. The Liszt is played on an 1823 Broadwood, which is also used for an amusing pastiche of familiar Beethoven themes that Czerny composed in 1835. The early sonata (the second of the three Opus 2 sonatas) is played on a 1985 reproduction (by Janine Johnson and Paul Poletti) of an instrument made by Louis Dulcken in 1795. For those interested in the distinguishing features of these instruments, the Brahms album also includes a half-hour conversation that Mok has with her recording engineer David v.R. Bowles, which touches on not only playing the instruments but also the problems of faithful audio capture.
That latter is a particularly sensitive issue. In many respects the developmental history of just about any musical instrument has involved “progress towards uniformity.” The “engineering ideal” would be that one instrument is as good as another. This is particularly important when the instrument is not particularly portable. A pianist can sit down at a Steinway concert grand with the same expectations (s)he would bring to sitting down at any other Steinway concert grand. However, in spite of the industrial revolution, many keyboard instruments were being personally crafted, even as late as the nineteenth century. Thus, Mok’s decision to perform a composer’s music on an instrument that would have been consistent with the composer’s expectations is a valid one.
To the extent that both of these albums present us with sonorities that we would not normally expect for the pieces being performed, Mok’s efforts have definitely been revelatory. Beyond sonority, one quickly begins to appreciate that rhetorical stance matters just as much as technical skill in the performance of the nineteenth-century repertoire. Even in the preceding century, it is clear that Beethoven’s dedication of his Opus 2 sonatas to Joseph Haydn is not just a matter of honoring a past master (even if the two never got along very well) but also a display of rhetorical devices, particularly witty ones, by which the young upstart student can show off a command of his master’s tricks and even outdo his master at the game. While we tend to think of Beethoven as a very overt personality, the life-force behind the Opus 2 sonatas is a subtle one. Played on a seventeenth-century instrument, Beethoven’s “moves” come across as gestural, rather than postural; and one can better appreciate both his originality and his wit.
Late Brahms, on the other hand, is quite a different matter. Across the twenty relatively short pieces in those four late collections, Brahms uses his advanced years to undertake bold experiments that he would have avoided when trying to promote his career. This is particularly evident in the many intricately complex relations between pulse and rhythm. These work best when the pulse is kept steady and the pianist masters the art of having the rhythmic patterns wind their way around it. In this domain Mok’s sense of pulse is not always as rock-solid as one might wish. This may have been a consequence of her instruments having shorter decay times. However, since Brahms would have been aware of those same decay times, it may be that Mok had not yet mastered the full complexity of Brahms’ rhythms (particularly when they are polyrhythms) when she made some of these recordings.
Nevertheless, there are so many virtues in both of these albums that one should not get too absorbed in picking nits that are likely to resolve themselves as the performer becomes more familiar with the music being played.