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Interview with Gwendolyn Mok in the SF Examiner

EH: What is your musical background?

Mok: I studied at the Juilliard pre-college division from ages six to eighteen, and was accepted at the Curtis Institute. I turned it down because at the time, I was uncertain about the career path that I wanted to take, and I ended up going to Yale instead, majoring in Music and Psychology. I then received my DMA from SUNY Stony Brook.

EH: One of your later teachers was the great Lithuanian pianist, Vlado Perlemuter. I would love to hear about your studies with him.

Mok: I was invited to teach at the Dartington International Summer School and had no idea who Perlemuter was at the time – he was very famous in Europe and in parts of Asia, but not so much in North America. The director at Dartington wanted me to be Perlemuter’s assistant, and I remember being taken aback by him. Perlemuter had suffered an injury in childhood and could only see out of one eye; I believe he had fallen out of a second-story window.
He was quite old, almost ninety at the time, and he selected five students or so to teach during the week. So I listened to every lesson that Perlemuter taught, and of course, he taught Ravel. At a certain point, I realized it was worth auditioning for him, to be one of Perlemuter’s students myself. I had already been performing in public, recording with orchestras, etc. but I felt it was too important an opportunity to pass up. It was a pipe dream at the time, but I wanted to study the complete works of Ravel with him in Paris.
That fall, I made a detour to Paris and auditioned for Perlemuter – I believe I played Gaspard de la Nuit - and he took me as his last student. The French Ministry of Culture gave me a very generous grant to study with him, and for six months, I flew from New York to Paris to study with Perlemuter for a week at a time. Every day at 6 pm I would receive a lesson on Ravel from him.
Our lessons were very methodical and planned, sometimes two or three hours long, and I would finish one phrase, he would jump up and stop me (laughs). It was very rigorous training, but he wanted me to get things just right. Vlado didn’t like to discuss the personal history of the person – anecdotes, etc. - and I didn’t feel it was appropriate for me to ask him personal questions about Ravel. At the end of my tutelage with him, he wanted me to play all of Ravel’s works for him. He never complimented me much, but after that, he said, “Not bad”, which coming from him meant a lot (laughs).

EH: You visited Ravel’s home in Monfort l’Amaury, where he lived from 1921 until his death. What were your impressions stepping into his physical world?

Mok: As you know, Ravel was a little guy, probably no taller than 5’3. He was a good-looking man, very well-proportioned, very properly dressed and by all means a formal person. I don’t think he was casual or sloppy in any part of his life. Everything in his house was placed according to his diminutive size – paintings were hung at his eye level, bookshelves, etc. He was a man of impeccable taste and he even designed the beautiful wallpaper in his house.

His garden falls away from the house down a slope, and if you stand on his balcony, there is just a tremendous view of the French countryside. The reception room has a beautiful sofa with satin wallpaper behind it, and behind this are glass cabinets with porcelain teacups, artifacts from friends and tours, etc. There’s a hidden closet where Ravel kept his manuscripts, and on his piano, this 1902 Erard, is a little doll under a glass cover, which inspired him to compose Valses nobles et sentimentales. He loved little toys, games for children, wind-up objects, etc. There were two sides of him, really - the sophisticated dandy and the more innocent side that preferred the company of children - and you can hear these in his music.
Ravel is one of the most often performed composers in the world today. He was a neo-classicist, respecting the traditional forms even in a work like Jeux d’eau, and he was a genius for choosing the right colors at the right moments. An excellent orchestrator, he was very particular about colors and timbres. It is so unfortunate that he is often compared to Debussy, who was a completely different kind of composer. Debussy was breaking through the older forms, moving towards the idea of eliminating melody in its strictest form. If you look at a work like La cathedrale engloutie, there’s no melody there – it’s all chords and colors!

Somebody told me that the Ravel royalties now go to the second wife of Ravel’s gardener. She has a lush life in Monte Carlo, I believe (laughs). People say that there is a lack of sentimentality in Ravel’s music, but one thing I definitely appreciated after visiting his home was that he was a man who was actively devoted to beauty, that he admired beautiful things tremendously.

EH: One of the more popular of Ravel’s piano works, I’m curious to know what Perlemuter had to say about Gaspard de la nuit?

Mok: We actually spent a few days working on Gaspard. First of all, with Ondine, this mysterious, icy sea creature, Perlemuter wanted me to weave the melody that she sings until the very end, to let it ride above the water until it stops rather abruptly near the end of the piece. He told me that Ondine’s voice should not waver too much, that there shouldn’t be an overly sentimental rubato to her singing. In order to capture the mood properly, one should read the poem, preferably in French of course. Perlemuter insisted on keeping a cool distance with this creature who is rather menacing.

The same could be said about Le gibet, which is about the hanging. It describes in gruesome detail the corpse, the stickiness of the blood, the spider weaving the web, etc. and Perlemuter said the B-flat needs to be constant – the misconception being that most people try to bury the note in favor of the melody – as a reminder that the person is dead.

In Scarbo, which is about this poltergeist jumping around and creating havoc, this mischievous character that you have to create the sense of terror with, Perlemuter said that this could often be achieved by really following Ravel’s dynamic markings. He said that people often don’t get the diminuendos here because of over-pedaling. In order to make the poltergeist disappear, one has to take the foot off the pedal and let the sound disappear in a mysterious way. The balance and voicing, how to use the pedal, took up a lot of time in our lessons.

EH: How would you describe the primary differences and subtleties of Ravel’s pieces when played on a restored 1868 Erard ? How do the sound and color qualities of a straight-strung piano differ from, say, the modern Steinway?

Mok: While living in England, I traveled to Amsterdam, as one moves through Europe easily. I had heard that there was a particular piano shop on the Keizersgracht and went in to see it. There was a beautiful Erard there, nothing ornate about it, except that it was built in 1868. Perlemuter had been telling me about these pianos.

After receiving permission, I sat down and played Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso. The decay on the instrument was so conducive to the effect I wanted to get, something I had struggled with on a Steinway. There’s a very abrasive, edginess, a dry strumming sound in combination with the percussive quality of the strings. It sounded like the perfect accompaniment in the slow section of Alborada. Your hearing becomes much more aware of a kind of three-dimensional sound.

In La Vallee des cloches, Perlemuter wanted me to strive and create different kinds of bell tones. For me, the piece is all about Sunday morning in Paris, the sounds of church bells ringing. And in Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin, the Toccata, as you know, has many repeated notes that are difficult to play quickly on the modern Steinway. The Erard makes these much easier, a much less daunting a challenge.
The most important invention of the Erard, after all, was probably the double-escapement. Many piano companies tried to develop this, but never quite succeeded. The hammer never goes back exactly to its resting place, and so it never has to travel the same distance to strike the string again. Liszt, for example, loved and adored the Erards, which allowed him to compose certain pieces because of this device. Of course, the disadvantage with straight-strung pianos is the ringing without the sustainability of the melodic lines.

We have quite a unique collection of these pianos here at San Jose State. We were given an 1861 Erard from England, we have on-loan an 1841 Bosendorfer, and there are talks of receiving a Broadwood as well. In the Beethoven Center, we have fortepianos from 1823, clavichords and harpsichords. My students get to play on all of these instruments, practicing Schubert and Liszt on them, etc.

EH: From historical recordings, who for you is the ideal Ravel interpreter?

Mok: I love Perlemuter’s recordings, of course, because I understand the tradition that he comes from. But I’d have to say Gilels is excellent and Gieseking is fascinating for his use of color.

EH: Your latest recording of Brahms’ late works (Op. 116-119) was released just last week. Can you tell us about it?

Mok: I was inspired to record these late works after having read articles about Brahms and his pianos. In Brahms’ time, there were over three-hundred piano manufacturers competing for the attention of the great performer-composers. Brahms, a friend of Clara Schumann, was allowed to try many of the latest instruments of the time at her house. So Brahms played his first Erard at Clara’s house, and he just fell in love with it. According to his letters, he refused to give the first performance of his First Piano Concerto (Op. 15) unless he had an Erard at his disposal.

In 1872, Brahms was given an 1868 Streicher from his admirers, and here at San Jose State, we have instruments that are very close to the one Brahms used until his death in 1897, which means his latest works were composed on this piano. Also, he decided in 1891 to retire from composing, but in 1893, he produced these last four opus’. I am so grateful that he changed his mind. These pieces are very reflective, intense works by a man looking back on his life. The most well-known and often played by young students is, of course, the A major Intermezzo, Opus 118, a declaration of love for Clara in my opinion.

The Opus 117 - which Brahms referred to as the “Lullabies of his Sorrow” - are indeed somber pieces in many ways, but the first one encapsulates the word Tranquillo. The middle Intermezzo is a real lament, heightened by the minor second at the start of the piece, and weaves its way throughout. In the final Opus 119, he begins with falling thirds, which to me feels like someone is exhaling and weakened by extreme sadness.

Performing and recording these beautiful works on Erard and Streicher pianos that Brahms knew has really opened up a new world for me as an interpreter and pianist. I found my singing thumbs! He so cleverly hid many of the most intimate and beautiful melodies in the alto-tenor lines. My opinion is that Brahms, who was quite an introvert, symbolized this tendency by making us search for those hidden emotions.

EH: Gwendolyn, thank you so much for taking the time today.

Mok: It was my pleasure – thank you!


Gwendolyn Mok in Conversation with Thad Carhart

Thad Carhart, author of The Piano Shop on the Left Bank (Random House), recently interviewed Gwendolyn Mok about the Erard piano she uses when performing Ravel's works, and her thoughts about playing Ravel.

Thad: My understanding is you have recorded the entire opus of Ravel. Since you have chosen to do that on a period instrument and not any period instrument but an Erard, what is the particular quality of sound that spoke to you when you first heard the instrument? Presumably the idea of this came from an experience. It wasn't just an intellectual decision, it must be something you heard and then made the decision. Am I correct?

Gwendolyn: I was in the middle of my studies with Vlado Perlemuter, the great Ravel interpreter and probably his last [known] pupil. I was very curious about a lot of the markings in the manuscript. Vlado and I struggled for days over about 20 measures in a passage in Alborada del gracioso. He kept talking about the decay, you have to listen for the decay and then blend it with the next note. It was difficult because he kept talking about this and he kept demonstrating and I could not understand it or hear all the subtleties in the piano.

Thad: What sort of instrument was he playing at that point?

Gwendolyn: He was playing a Steinway and he also owned a Pleyel. I was in Paris in 1994, and I made sure I went to Ravel's house in Monfort l'Amaury. I first went to Ravel's house in February and it was absolutely freezing cold, snowy, and no heat in his house. But there was his Erard piano in this little tiny room. The caretaker knew that Vlado had sent me there and invited me to try the piano. I was absolutely frozen solid and it was so cold in that room but at least I got to play it. The piano had just been restored by Pianos Hanlet. It was really incredible because as I began to play, the piano answered some of these questions that Vlado had brought up, especially in Alborada and in some other places where he wanted certain colors and subtleties of nuance which I was not previously able to get. I think that is what planted the seed in my mind that perhaps I should go in this direction. It was not realized until 1995, in September, when I was in Amsterdam on a weekend break. Adam Swainson, a friend of mine in England, had given me some names of friends in Amsterdam and he said if you are interested in Erards make sure you go and see Fritz Janmaat.

I happened to be on the Keizersgraacht, where my aunt and uncle own some property. We were walking and literally stumbled across this store. I had it in my notes, but we had not made a plan yet to go there. We walked in without an appointment. Fritz was there and he was having his assistant french polish this beautiful instrument which was all rosewood. I said "I am interested in knowing if you have any Erards that I can play" and he said "I happen to have just finished this piano, would you like to try it?" So it was an incredible coincidence.

Thad: Did he know you were a serious pianist and not just somebody just walking in off the street.

Gwendolyn: Well no, as far as I am concerned he thought I was just someone who walked in off the street. I was not saying a lot anyway. I did not want to go into the whole business of the grant because if I played it (the Erard) and did not like it then it would have been awkward, so I just sat down and played Ondine, and Alborada, because they were so fresh in my mind. Fritz got very excited and he started to ask all these questions. His piano is from 1868-1875, which is good for me because Ravel was born in 1875. Ravel's own Erard is from 1902-03.

Thad: The one you had played in his house?

Gwendolyn: Yes. One of the remarkable qualities of the piano, I would say, first and foremost, is the clarity of the instrument. The Erard that I play is from 1875, and is straight strung. If you look inside your own piano, you will notice that the strings are all crossing each other. With the straight strung piano you get distinct registral differences --almost like listening to a choir where you have the bass, tenor, alto, and soprano voices. It is very clear and there is no blending or homogenizing of the sound. It therefore gives you huge opportunities in experimenting with color.

Thad: I was not aware that that aspect, maybe for Ravel's music in particular, would be especially important. Is that sort of clarity rather than blending of tones, something you think is particularly important for the Ravel music you play?

Gwendolyn: Yes. I think if you compare his writing to Rachmaninoff's writing, it is a completely different aesthetic. Ravel really admired Mozart, and a lot of his music requires the same kind of discipline and demands the same kind of approach. If you look at the works Jeux d'eau, Sonatine, or Le tombeau de Couperin, those are very classically structured and I think the approach to those pieces involves clarity.

Thad: I think that it is interesting when he transcribed Le tombeau de Couperin, he very consciously chose not to touch the Toccata. He thought it was inseparable from the instrument and could not be satisfactorily transcribed. He was one of the great orchestrators, so if he felt that, it tells you a lot about how serious he was about what he could bring forth from the keyboard.

You have talked specifically about Alborada. Would you agree that in a piece like Alborada, that you have got to go beyond merely the formidable technique in terms of the repeated notes and all the rest of it. What seems to me is even more complicated, would be to then bring forth nuances, tones, and colors that Ravel was very consciously looking for.

Gwendolyn: Alborada is, in many ways, the litmus test. As you say, it is a technical challenge for any pianist to play as is Ondine and Scarbo. But Alborada tells a story that involves a lot of characters; in Ondine you're dealing with two people; you're dealing with Ondine and the man she is trying to seduce. Scarbo is about a poltergeist that is terrorizing this person in the house and again it has two protagonists. Whereas in Alborada, I hear a very big theatrical piece. You are dealing with singers, percussionists, a clown who is trying to entertain this insufferably humorless boss.

Thad: Because I would think, when you hear it and you even think of what it involves technically, it is difficult enough before you even get to that whole series of questions. But of course what you are saying is that you have to take it by pieces and go through that and then you have to go beyond that. The bigger part of the work is all a setting and a whole series of voices and characters.

Gwendolyn: Yes. Let's consider that section I mentioned earlier. There is a section in the middle of Alborada where all the action stops, and there is a single line. This single voice is a lament and Vlado worked on this with me for days, saying no, no you do not get the decay, you're not getting the voice; it is not human enough. The voice is then interrupted by his band of percussionists who are standing behind him. You can just imagine in the court, this jester singing this sad song and having this little group of percussionists behind him, a man with a small drum, someone with a triangle and someone with a tambourine. It is all very much a part of the fabric which you cannot get on a modern piano.

On the Erard especially, the low end has a real percussion sound. I know we talk about the modern piano as being part of the percussion family --sometimes I jokingly say to my students that it has more to do with our approach to the piano-- we are hitting the piano rather than eliciting the best sounds that it can give you. But on the Erard, the lower sounds mimic low bass drum kind of sounds. It could be due to the fact that it is straight strung, so you are also getting the purity of the vibration. The top strings are carillon-like so that you can achieve bells and triangle effects. This is especially evident in La Vallee de Cloches.

Thad: In a different sense I suppose, although more so, you get sympathetic harmonics as the tone decays. As you get it on the soundboard itself from the cross stringing, there is a certain complexity that appeals to us and we have developed an aesthetic around that because all pianos are cross-strung now. I think it was Steinway who made the big breakthrough, putting a Chickering frame together with the cross stringing of the registers so that the piano would really have the strength.

Gwendolyn: "Volumizing it!"

Thad: That is not to say it is bad, but clearly there are going to be trade-offs.

Gwendolyn: You sacrifice something for the power. I think one of the things which I have not had a chance to talk about is the idea of bending the sound. What is interesting about the single string set up, is it allows you to hear along the line of the string. As it starts to decay, there will be a pronounced bend in the sound that allows you to prepare and adjust the way you strike the next note.

Thad: Which is not something you hear on a Steinway or a Bechstein

Gwendolyn: It is very hard to hear that, because you do not get the purity of that one string. The double escapement was the most important invention of the Erards. Before the hammer drops to its original resting position, it is suspended in such a way that you can re-strike a string without hitting it forte. So suddenly you have one invention that has solved two problems, one which allowed composers like Liszt to write his kind of virtuoso music, but it also opened up a whole area of suppleness and nuance of tone.

Thad: Double escapement allows you to repeat notes rapidly and this gave Liszt the green light to write a lot of notes, but in a way that was more subtle but equally important. I have to believe the second point you made, that it gives you a dynamic control that previously was not possible. There is a certain appeal and a certain aesthetic both in the creating and the hearing that develops around a breakthrough like that.

Gwendolyn: My father was an amateur violinist and a viola player, and I always felt very envious when the quartet would come over and play, partly because they could manipulate so much more expression out of the string.

Thad: You talk about bending, that is a wonderful expression, that comes out of it, because you can hear that and not everybody can. I think I know what you are talking about, though I am sure my ears are not as finely tuned as yours.

Gwendolyn: I do not think that we have really had the opportunity to explore these other avenues until recently. In the old days, I think restoration techniques were oriented more towards maintaining an instrument. But now people like Fritz Janmaat are coming up with really ingenious ways to bring these instruments not just back to life but he is restoring it with all the original conditions. For example, he did not change the glue for the sounding board on this instrument. He created an incredible and impressive machine which over time slowly bent the sound board back to the original shape preserving all the original glue.

Thad: There are pianos and then there are pianos. Experts have known this forever, and some pianists have even paid attention to it --not many. But it is only now that a generation of artists can visit that intelligently. It has to do with an aesthetic of sound and one that was contemporary with some of these composers. That is not to say that the Steinway is bad. It is not a question of winners or losers, it is a question of a diversity, of variety and the richness of experience that can come from that. It is like everything else that you come to and then get used to. It should not be surprising to us that Ravel, if he used another piano and he did it consciously, was doing so with his music in mind and where he was going with his music. Fine! In order to get there you have to at least open yourself to these experiences. So that is why I find what you are doing with the Erard, even visiting that question at all much less seriously, (and it is clear to me that it is serious) very exciting.

Gwendolyn: I enjoy playing these works as much on a modern piano, whether it be a Steinway, or a Bosendorfer, or a Bechstein as much as I do on an Erard. I would not go any further back than an Erard. That would be my starting point. But what I have learned from playing on an Erard, is that our ears need be aware of the other possibilities, and once you become aware of those other possibilities, it will forever change how you imagine the sound should be on a modern piano. I have said to my students, if you can hear the sound that you want to make, there is more than a good chance that you can make that sound. But if you can't even hear that sound, then we have to work hard at coming up with a concept.

It is the same issue regarding the pedal. I had just arrived for my lesson with Perlemuter and I had to go into the l'ante chambre to wait for Le Maitre to come in. This one time he came in laughing his head off in a great mood. He said that he just had the most aggravating conversation with an American fan. He said that this pianist had called him, and with all this flattery said "Oh, Perlemuter, your pedaling is just divine! What is the great secret to your pedaling?" And Vlado replied "I don't pedal with my feet I pedal with my ears!" And hung up the phone.

Thad: Mindless technique is a refuge for scoundrels just as mindless patriotism is for politicians! Can you get what you want so that we can hear what you hear, to your satisfaction?

Gwendolyn: We recorded these two CD's in a great auditorium with two Neumann microphones, and two ambient mikes which picked up the vibrations from the hall. The distinction between the piano sound on this recording and what you get from a recording on a modern piano is going to be quite discernable. The CD is recorded for people who are curious about Ravel and never heard his music and are interested in this scenario, or for the aficionado who already knows and loves Ravel so well and would like to expand their hearing.

Thad: I am dying to hear your interpretation because you are a very serious musician, and it is amazing to me and very encouraging that you are doing the whole opus. It is not to say "Oh what an accomplishment!" that you took it on, by itself, because clearly you are visiting it seriously. I know you are doing many things besides looking at what instrument is most attuned to this and what did he use and so forth, but that is still an important part of the picture and ironically it is one of those blind spots for us. As you say, until there was a technique worthy of the name, restoration was often limited to a kind of sophisticated maintenance. Now there are experts working to make these pianos whole to bring back a possibility of an aural landscape other than the one we have become familiar with and so that is very exciting.

Gwendolyn: I am not trying to push a point or force the issue. I am only offering an alternative to the many already very fine recordings of Ravel's works that are already available.

One aspect of Ravel's writing style was clarified for me by Roger Nichols, who has written notes for this CD. He was asked by Peters publishing house to come up with a new edition of some of Ravel's solo works, as there was a little window of opportunity vis-a-vis the copyright. Durand for many years has had complete domain over Ravel's music. If you are going to buy any editions, go and buy the Peters, because they are so beautiful to look at and many mistakes are corrected.

Roger said that in 1885 when Victor Hugo died his funeral marked the transition between the old and the modern spirit in French literature. Ravel at that point was only ten years old. He was not only aware of this important occasion, but his music belongs to the old world of order and ceremony, and to the new one. It is reflected in his writings where you have works like Le Tombeau de Couperin, which is in homage not so much to Couperin himself, but a tribute directed to the whole of French music of that period but in a language unique to Ravel.

Thad: I would even go further, it was the whole idea of the 18th century, sure it is music in particular, but it embraces that whole sense of the Enlightenment, the French Enlightenment. One of the things that struck me as especially poignant about Le Tombeau, is he dedicated each of the sections to a friend who had died in WW1. So that speaks to your point directly. Part of the old world and looking back to that, and also part of the modern and very conscious of that, with all the contradictions and anguish that living through WW1 brought to so many in Europe. That has got to be interesting in terms of what he fashioned from it, and if you can bring that forth, Chapeau! As they say.

Now I am going to ask a stupid question, I'll ask it anyway, because I want to know. One of the great cliches as you know about Ravel associated with the piano is the statement: "The sostenuto is almost never used, but people use it for Ravel!" Did you find that the middle pedal was something you really had to spend a lot of time on, with regard to this repertoire in particular, or maybe that is something you had an entirely different approach to twenty years ago?

Gwendolyn: That is a dead easy question to answer, because there is no middle pedal on this piano! I therefore did not have a choice. But the other thing about this piano which is very interesting is that it has dampers that come from below. On modern pianos, dampers fall onto the string. Here is a unique element on the Erard, that you do not deal with on modern instruments, because their dampers are very efficient in stopping the sound. But in this case it is a much more passive way of stopping the sound so you have a lot of ring left behind; so if you are playing Une Barque sur l'ocean, you get a lot of resonance and ring from the instrument.

I think the two most incredible musical phrases that have been written in Ravel's works would be the opening of the second movement of the piano concerto in G, and in La Vallee des Cloches --the last piece in Miroirs, where there is a phrase that continues over 20 measures. Ravel maintains it and he demands that you spin that phrase out in such a way that you do not let it down until it is ready to go.

There are really some wondrous things in his repertoire, I never tire of teaching it, studying it, playing it. I have been with it now for about 7 years, the culmination of which is this recording. It is certainly not going to be my first or last recording of his music. I hope to make others of Ravel because in re-visiting the material I still find more that I could teach or study, I just love it.

Thad: Did you include the transcription of La Valse?

Gwendolyn: No. I play the two piano version of it, which is incredibly fun. What is on the CD are all the original works for solo piano. When you look at it, there are not that many --there are 13 works-- and some of those individual works include multiple movements. The great variety and the incredible imagination with which he approached each one of these works is incredible.

Thad: Didn't Perlemuter study with Cortot?

Gwendolyn: Yes he was another great teacher.

Thad: Yes one of Ravel's great proponents and not just for his showmanship but because he obviously knew and respected the music. So you are part of a living tradition.

Gwendolyn: I don't want that responsibility!

Thad: Don't worry about it. Whatever it is it will be in the playing and the recording and I am very interested in hearing it.

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