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The Composer's Piano: Brahms: Opp.116-119

Johannes Brahms

1868 Erard Grand Piano
1871 Streicher Grand Piano

2CD set - Performed on period Erard and Streicher pianos



“[In 2002] 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... 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.”
[ 9 / 9 ] Jed Distler, Classics Today [July 2014]
“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… [Mok’s release makes] 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… I think these [historic] 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 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…. A most worthy effort and an excellent recording warrants a strong recommendation.”
Jerry Dubins, Fanfare [January/February 2014]
“In 2001 Mok recorded Ravel’s complete works on an Erard concert grand from 1875, offering listeners the opportunity to hear the composer’s music as he heard it. With nuanced interpretations of late Brahms on types of period pianos the composer used and owned, she offers listeners the same… Mok’s playing conveys the personal and intimate tone of Brahms’s late piano works. She achieves a transparent sound with finesse… The sound is excellent. This enjoyable resource is much recommended, illuminating both Brahms’s late works and the beauty of these period instruments."
Kang, American Record Guide [November/December 2013]
“these readings are anything but matter-of-fact, technically secure… This album [sonics are] exceptionally warm… Mok has an innate ability to parse the composer’s sometimes nagging attempts at piano orchestration, and to de-emphasize some of the clutter, especially in the bass lines, which sound exemplary on this recording… this is a fine album that’s combines history with living performance… Brahms fanatics will want it and others will find a lot of pleasure and illumination.”
[ * * * * ] Steven Ritter, Audiophile Audition [August 2013]
“[Mok is an] outstanding Ravel interpreter… Helping her in the effort are two period instruments in the SJSU collection that Brahms himself would have found very congenial for their sound: an 1860 Érard from France and an 1871 Streicher from Vienna. Both [pianos] are noted for their beauty of tone and the fact that no fuzziness in definition exists when playing octaves due to the fact that the strings of both are parallel-strung rather than cross-strung, as is the case in a modern piano. As a broad generalization, the Érard lends itself to coaxing a warm, melodic tone of almost symphonic breadth that can support the melody optimally, and the Streicher to a golden, burnished sound in all available timbres and textures which permits the artist a more intimate relation with the music… Prepare to be enchanted!”.
Phil Music, Audio Society of Atlanta [July 2013]
Introspective, autobiographical, and both classically and romantically inflected in form and content, Brahms’ piano music allies technique with authentic, wide-ranging musical expression, often formal and abstract. In terms of his musical designations, Brahms did not adhere to strict terminology with regards to form, as he expressed to his friend Elizabeth von Herzogenberg, who replied that “I am always most partial to the non-committal word partial Klavierstuecke, just because it is non-committal the clearly-defined form of pieces seems somewhat at variance with one’s conception [of a rhapsody]. But it is practically a characteristic of these designations that they have lost their true characteristics through application, so that they can be used for this or that at will, without any qualms.” Generally, the pieces entitled “Capriccio” involve a brief, energized mood (Stimmung) of extroverted vitality; “Intermezzo” invokes a mood of musing and reflection, as does the designation “Romance.” The “Rhapsody” connotes a large-scale work of some girth and force, albeit written in sonata-form, unlike the dashing fantasies of Franz Liszt. Fourteen of the twenty are titled Intermezzi: Brahms’s friend the musicologist Philipp Spitta summed up the character of these works, and to some extent what he says characterizes all of the Brahms late piano pieces: “I believe I understand what you wanted to say when you entitled them ‘Intermezzos.’ ‘Intermediate pieces’ are both preceded and followed by other things, and in this case musicians and listeners alike must imagine for themselves what they are.”

Brahms may have conceived his late pieces with a particular instrument, the Streicher – with its light touch and delicate sound - in mind. Brahms had managed to secure an 1868 Streicher, a gift from the manufacturer made to him in 1872. Brahms claimed expertise in his ability “to write for an instrument one knows through and through, as I know the piano. There I always know exactly what I write and why I write one way or another.” At Clara Schumann’s house, Brahms knew the French Erard and English Broadwood instruments, and he commented on the lightness and articulation of their respective action. That the Erard could “coax out a warm, melodic tone [since] the nature of the instrument’s sound supports the melody” speaks to the composer’s creative aesthetic. At the Ehrbar Salon, Vienna, he enjoyed their instruments and commented on the Schweighofer, a make that he would turn to in his late years, along with the Boesendorfer. At various venues in his concert career, Brahms played the Bechstein, a Steinweg Nachfolgern, and the American pianos, Steinway, and the Knabe. He favored what he termed the “conservative” pianos, especially those that could deliver distinctive voices and timbres in the treble, middle, and bass registers, which allow a change of timbre as the volume increases.

Born in New York City, pianist Gwendolyn Mok has appeared in many of the world’s leading concert halls, including The Barbican, Carnegie Hall, The Kennedy Center, Avery Fisher Hall, Alice Tully Hall, Davies Symphony Hall, and The Hong Kong Performing Arts Center. She is also frequently invited to play and record with major international orchestras, most notably the London Symphony Orchestra, The Philharmonia, the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, the Beijing Philharmonic Orchestra and the Residency Orchestra of The Hague. In his 90th year, world re-known Ravel expert, pianist Vlado Perlemuter chose Gwendolyn Mok to be the last student to whom he would pass on his knowledge of Ravel. In 1994, the French Ministry of Culture awarded Mok a grant to study with Perlemuter for one year. Since 1995, she has been performing Ravel’s works in recital and was invited to teach the works at the London Royal College of Music, Welsh College of Music and Drama, The Dartington International Summer School in Devon, England, Shanghai Conservatory of Music and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, among others.

In 1996, Mok made her official London debut in two concerts featuring music of Ravel in Somerset House, on a restored 1868 Erard grand piano in the Great Room of the Courtauld Galleries. Citibank UK sponsored Mok’s production, Ravel and the Post Impressionists and two additional productions in 1997 and 1998: Mendelssohn in London, Letters Home in the Raphael Gallery of the Victoria and Albert Museum, and A Gershwin Showcase, a re-creation of a 1930s radio showcase featuring a 27-piece jazz band and soloists, in the sumptuous deco-period ballroom of London’s Mayfair Hotel.

Gwendolyn Mok is a recording artist for Nonesuch/Elektra, Musical Heritage Society, Cala Records and EMI Classics and MSR Classics. Her debut CD with The Philharmonia featuring Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major (Cala Records) was nominated for an Alternative Edison award in the concerto category. A second CD on Cala, of Saint Saen’s Africa-Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra with the London Philharmonic Orchestra has been equally applauded and is broadcast frequently, as is her 2-CD set featuring Ravel’s complete works for solo piano, Ravel Revealed (MSR Classics).

Currently the Coordinator of Keyboard Studies at San Jose State University School of Music and Dance, Gwendolyn Mok began her studies at the Juilliard School of Music in New York. She attended Yale University, where she completed her undergraduate studies, and the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where she earned her Doctorate.


CD1 - 1868 Erard Grand Piano
Capriccio in D minor
Intermezzo in A minor
Capriccio in G minor
Intermezzo in E major
Intermezzo in E minor
Intermezzo in E major
Capriccio in D minor

Intermezzo in A minor
Intermezzo in A major
Ballade in G minor
Intermezzo in F minor
Romanze in F major
Intermezzo in E-flat minor

CD2 - 1871 Streicher Grand Piano
Intermezzo in E-flat major
Intermezzo in B-flat minor
Intermezzo in C-sharp minor
Intermezzo in B minor
Intermezzo in E minor
Intermezzo in C major
Rhapsodie in E-flat major

with Gwendolyn Mok and David v.R. Bowles
Intermezzo in A minor, Op.116, No.2 (modern piano)
Intermezzo in A minor, Op.116, No.2 (Erard)
Intermezzo in C major, Op.119, No.3 (modern piano)
Intermezzo in C major, Op.119, No.3 (Streicher)

MSR Classics
The Composer's Piano GWENDOLYN MOK

Complete Works for Solo Piano