Yesterday afternoon at Old First Church, pianist Gwendolyn Mok gave the first in a series of three programs she has planned for the Old First Concerts recital series under the title Gwendolyn Mok & friends. However, her opening program was a solo recital; so the “friends” will not be coming along until the second concert on June 5. The title of yesterday’s recital was Legacy: The Spirit of Beethoven, which is also the title of Mok’s most recent recording, itself part of a series entitled The Composer’s Piano. All of the works on the program were taken from this album, the second of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 2 piano sonatas (written in the key of A major), Franz Liszt’s transcription of Beethoven’s Opus 98 song cycle An die ferne Geliebte (to the distant beloved), and Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 54 set of variations in D minor, which he titled “Variations Serieuses.” The encore selection, Carl Czerny’s “Erste fantasie auf motive aus Beethovens Werken” (first fantasia on themes from Beethoven’s works), was also taken from the album.
Nevertheless, yesterday’s recital departed from the album in one very significant way. As the series title suggests, all the recordings were made on instruments consistent with the period in which they were composed. Thus, the sonata was recorded on a 1985 reproduction (by Janine Johnson and Paul Poletti) of an instrument made by Louis Dulcken in 1795. The Liszt transcription was recorded on an 1823 Broadwood (the same instrument used for recording the Czerny fantasia) and the Mendelssohn on an 1868 Érard (the only instrument on the album made after the respective composer’s death). In addition, a lower-frequency of 430 Hz was used for the tuning A on the Beethoven and Czerny recordings.
Yesterday, on the other hand, Mok performed with the full force of a modern Steinway at her disposal. The fit was not always a conducive one, as was evident from the very beginning of the concert. In her opening remarks to the audience, Mok observed that, while the Beethoven sonata imposed major technical challenges it also served as an example of the composer’s capacity for wit. That wit had a variety of outlets, one of which was juxtaposing sharp contrasts in dynamics. These amount to subtle rhetorical chuckles; but on a modern instrument they tend to get consumed by extreme swings between thundering and whispering, almost a parody of what the composer had intended. Indeed, even in the less whimsical passages of this sonata, it seemed as if both the wider dynamic range and the heavier responsiveness of the action kept getting in the way of Mok’s intentions.
This seemed to be less of a problem with her Liszt performance, but Liszt was clearly more interested in working with stronger pianos. Still, it is important to remember that this was more Liszt’s music than Beethoven’s; and, where the song transcriptions are concerned, Liszt was clearly showing off his ability to replace not only the composer but also the vocalist. Indeed, examination of the score (Edition Peters, reproduced above) shows that Liszt included the song text as part of his transcription, as if to remind the pianist (himself) where the vocal line is and needs to be delivered as if it were sung. Here again, the singing quality of that vocal line fared much better on Mok’s recording than it did yesterday afternoon on a modern Steinway.
The selection that best suited that Steinway was the Mendelssohn. Mok seemed a bit disparaging in introducing Mendelssohn, almost suggesting that he tended to go for quantity rather than quality. Bonnie Hampton came closer to the spirit of things when she was coaching students at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music working on one of his piano trios. She described Mendelssohn’s prolific output as the product of a man burning his candle at both ends, and Mok seems to have captured the almost frantic urgency of Opus 54 that is consistent with that description.
From that point of view, the full force of a modern instrument could not have been more appropriate. Furthermore, the tension that Mok elicited in her interpretation made the Czerny encore a refreshing breeze of comic relief. One might almost think that Czerny may have taught Liszt a thing or two about “playing for the crowd;” and it is good to know that we can still have a chuckle or two over Beethoven, rather than just standing in awe of his scowling monument.