BRAHMS: Late Piano Works, Op. 116-119; Bonus Conversation: Brahms and His Pianos – Gwendolyn Mok, piano – MSR Classics MS 1420 (2 CDs), 110:52 [Distr. by Albany] ****:
Though one could never accuse an artist of wanting to present anything less that the most impressive and idiomatic interpretation of any music on a recording, the theme of this album seems to be how Brahms would have sounded on pianos that he knew and played. With that in mind a critic must take this as the primary premise of the recorded effort. Having said this I can assure anyone that these readings are anything but matter-of-fact, technically secure, and even if I say they are somewhat “soft” in interpretative mannerism—and is that partly because of the piano sound?—they nonetheless are fully competent in the late Brahms style.
What you won’t find here is the type of full-bodied and powerful interpretative nuances that a pianist like Radu Lupu provides on his classic London recording, or Walter Kline on his memorable Vox set. Those readings stand head and tails above most, though we can include about five others, as the pinnacle of Brahms recorded legacy. These are quasi-archeological in nature, more akin to the efforts of Hardy Rittner on MD&G, whose album matches this one perfectly in repertory. I have not been especially high on Rittner’s recordings at all, considering him a fine pianist but lacking the last bit of passion and persuasive pianism. Lee Passarella seems to agree with me in that the highest he could muster was three and one-half stars. This album, sans SACD sound, is more conventional in sound—though exceptionally warm—but more convincing interpretatively. Mok doesn’t set anything on fire, but she also 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.
Both Rittner and Mok use a Streicher Grand, its more subtle tones fitting for the odd numbered opuses, while Mok uses the Erard for the even numbers. Something common to both albums—there are passages where the middle registers seem to lack definition and sound slightly awash lacking in clarity. I can’t for one moment believe that this is the fault of Mok as the rest of her performances belie that assertion, so I can only attribute it to Brahms’s really being ahead of his time in his demands on the instrument, which is why, ultimately, I think his music sounds more the way he envisioned it on a modern piano. Nonetheless, hearing good performances on pianos he knew and played adds a lot of understanding to what even modern performers can achieve.
Rounding out and concluding this album is a 30-minute segment where the pianist converses about these instruments and gives alternate takes of the “originals” on a modern piano. As interesting as this is, I think I would have preferred the addition of say, the Op. 79 Rhapsodies or something else. Even so, this is a fine album that’s combines history with living performance, and though it cannot be put at the top of the list, Brahms fanatics will want it and others will find a lot of pleasure and illumination.