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Brahms: Late Piano Works

Brahms / Mok
Release Date: 07/09/2013 
Label:  Msr   Catalog #: 1420   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Johannes BrahmsSpoken Word
Performer:  Gwendolyn Mok
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 51 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews



BRAHMS 7 Fantasien, op. 116. 3 Intermezzos, op. 117. 6 Klavierstücke, op. 118. 4 Klavierstücke, op. 119 & Gwendolyn Mok (pn) MSR 1420 (2 CDs: 110:52)


& Conversation: Brahms and his Pianos
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That Gwendolyn Mok has chosen to play these pieces on pianos of Brahms’s own time—an 1868 Erard (opp. 116 and 118) and an 1871 Streicher (opp. 117 and 119)—is not something we haven’t encountered before—relatively recently, as a matter of fact. Two roughly parallel Brahms cycles from Hardy Rittner and Alexander Melinkov, both performing on instruments of the composer’s day, have received mostly positive reviews in these pages.


What makes this two-CD set unique is a 16-minute conversation on disc two between Gwendolyn Mok and David Bowles, the recording’s audio engineer and producer, discussing the characteristics of the two instruments, how their sound qualities reflect the coloristic and emotional aspects of Brahms’s late piano pieces, and how artist and producer decided on which instrument was best suited to each of the numbered sets. This is then followed, for comparison purposes, by Mok performing the Intermezzo, op. 116/2, first on a modern piano and then on the Érard, and the Intermezzo, op. 119/3 on modern piano and then on the Streicher. Finally, there is a brief wrap-up exchange between Mok and Bowles, discussing the challenges of recording the different instruments from an audio engineer’s perspective.


Though the two artists probably don’t even know each other and had no knowledge of each other’s efforts, Mok’s Brahms set is somewhat of a complement to Sophia Gilmson’s harpsichord-piano comparison and exegesis of Bach’s Goldberg Variations , reviewed elsewhere in this issue. The two make excellent instructional companions for those who wish to learn something about how the mechanical and sonic properties of instruments contribute to the ways in which composers write for them.


New York native Gwendolyn Mok is not entirely new to me; she was the piano soloist in a performance of Saint-Saëns’s Africa I reviewed in 31:3. She may also be familiar to readers from her two-disc set of Ravel’s complete works for solo piano, reviewed by Peter Burwasser in 27:4. For her Ravel survey, Mok also chose a 19th-century Érard, a decision for which Burwasser roundly chastised her, noting that the piano predated the music by nearly a half century. In the evolution of piano design and construction, that’s an eternity.


Even in Brahms’s day, Érards and Streichers were on their way to becoming kindling as larger, more powerful, and more advanced designs from Bösendorfer, Steinway, and Chickering were coming into vogue. I will say, though, that even though I wouldn’t want to hear either of Brahms’s piano concertos on an Érard or a Streicher, I think these instruments are eminently well-suited to the somber, melancholic, introspective, intimate character of these late pieces, as well as to their occasionally resolute or defiant moments. Mok, poetically and quite aptly, I think, refers these miniatures by Brahms as “lullabies of his sorrow.”


Mok is currently Coordinator of Keyboard Studies at San Jose’s State University School of Music and Dance. She studied at Julliard, attended Yale University, and earned her Doctorate from the University of New York at Stony Brook. Winner of numerous awards and an internationally acclaimed artist who has appeared as soloist in recital and with major orchestras, Mok seems to be in close touch with these late Brahms pieces, and uses her period pianos to excellent effect to expose lighter and darker layers of the music which are often indistinguishable on modern pianos due to their homogenizing tendency.


Would I give up Nicholas Angelich’s Brahms, or Peter Longworth’s, whose recent Brahms disc led me to call the pianist my soul mate? No and no. But at least insofar as these late pieces are concerned, in an apples-to-apples comparison on period keyboards, I think I prefer Mok to both Rittner and Melinkov. A most worthy effort and an excellent recording warrants a strong recommendation.


FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

1. Fantasies (7) for Piano, Op. 116 by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Gwendolyn Mok (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1892; Austria 
Venue:  San José State University, San José, Cal 
Length: 22 Minutes 13 Secs. 
2. Pieces (6) for Piano, Op. 118 by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Gwendolyn Mok (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1892; Austria 
Venue:  San José State University, San José, Cal 
Length: 23 Minutes 34 Secs. 
3. Intermezzi (3) for Piano, Op. 117 by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Gwendolyn Mok (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1892; Austria 
Venue:  San José State University, San José, Cal 
Length: 16 Minutes 12 Secs. 
4. Pieces (4) for Piano, Op. 119 by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Gwendolyn Mok (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1892; Austria 
Venue:  San José State University, San José, Cal 
Length: 15 Minutes 31 Secs. 
5. Conversation: Brahms & his pianos by Spoken Word
Venue:  San José State University, San José, Cal 
Length: 16 Minutes 22 Secs. 

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