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Ravel in Pastel

November 13, 2002

Gwendolyn Mok

By Anatole Leikin

The merits of playing the piano music of 18th and 19th centuries on instruments of that time appear obvious. Composers wrote their music for contemporary instruments, tailoring it to befit the capabilities and particular sound characteristics of the available instruments. Yet, we do not hear many piano concerts today performed on period instruments. One reason for that is the scarcity of old instruments in excellent concert condition. Another reason became apparent during the concert Wednesday at University of California in Santa Cruz.

The featured instrument on that night was an Érard grand piano built in France in 1875 and reconstructed in the Netherlands in 1995. The Erard belongs to the pianist Gwendolyn Mok, who recently recorded the entire piano works of Ravel on the same instrument and who performed the all-Ravel program at UCSC.

Everything was planned to fit together in this program. The Érard was built only about 30 years prior to Ravel's Miroirs (1905) and Gaspard de la nuit (1908). The size of the UCSC Recital Hall — about 400 seats — approximates the size of the concert hall that the Erard firm built in Paris in the 1830s to showcase its instruments. Gwendolyn Mok is an excellent pianist, an expert Ravel interpreter who studied with Ravel's student Vlado Perlemuter.

Pros and cons

And yet, there were some bothersome moments. On the one hand, the Érard is a beautifully crafted instrument. The hammers are smaller, the keys are lighter and they travel down a couple of millimeters less than on the modern grand, so it is easier for a pianist to handle fast passages on the Érard than on a modern Steinway. The tone is attractive and supple. On the other hand, this instrument was built at the time when Érard became the most conservative of all piano makers. The dampers in this piano still press the strings from below rather than from above, which means that the dampers do not damp firmly enough, and the sound lingers a bit even after the keys are released. The piano is still straight-strung rather than overstrung, so the tone is weaker and less lasting.

That is why the results of the concert were mixed. The best features of the instrument were its distinct sound, quite different from modern grand pianos, and the harp-like and guitar-like effects adroitly played by Mok. The arpeggios in Jeux d'eau and especially the spectacular cascades of notes in "Une barque sur l'océan" from Miroirs had a rare pearly quality. The guitar-like strummings in the seldom-performed Sérénade grotesque (written by the 18-year-old composer), "Alborada del gracioso" from Miroirs, and "Scarbo" from Gaspard de la nuit were just as effective.

The quickly decaying tone of the Érard, however, fractured the melodies that consisted of longer notes, despite Mok's valiant efforts to project these melodies as clearly as possible. The engaging harp-like garlands of chords are fine; the harp-like plunking of supposedly gliding melodic lines is not. The unchangeably tender, delicate sound of the Erard was especially insufficient in Gaspard de la nuit. This suite is undoubtedly one of the most challenging masterpieces in the entire piano literature. The fearsome difficulty lies not only in its superhuman demands on finger dexterity but also in its wild profusion of tone colors and polyphonic complexity of textural layers. Ravel himself owned an Érard but his overstrung instrument was made in the 1900s, when Érard reluctantly adopted some of the newer structural features introduced by other piano manufacturers. The limitations of the volume and tone colors on the 19th-century Érard make one understand why most professional pianists towards the end of the century preferred the more powerful and diverse German and American pianos.

A touch too tame

In the first piece of Gaspard, "Ondine," the water splashes were enchanting, but the melodic notes could not be properly sustained. Mok apparently tried to overcome the lack of the long-lasting tone by speeding up the second piece of the cycle, "Le gibet" (The Gibbet). But in a faster tempo, the piece lost its sinister, utterly horrifying character. There is a sure and simple way to tell whether or not "Le gibet" is played right: you cannot help but have goosebumps while listening to it. On Wednesday night, I had none. The last number of Gaspard, "Scarbo," was equally devoid of its terrifying dynamic and timbral contrasts. According to Marguerite Long, Ravel in his conversations with Perlemuter insisted that a pianist should produce rich orchestral colors in "Scarbo." What I heard instead was a pleasant and dizzyingly rapid serenade done in a harp-like pastel.

So here is another reason for the dearth of period pianos in modern concert life. Even if there is a beautifully restored old piano available for a concert, it is still difficult to find music that would be entirely appropriate for it. The pace of changes in the piano technology was so swift back then that the new instruments became antiquated very quickly. Composers were demanding more and more instrumental capabilities from the piano makers, and then they wrote music that sounded best only on newest pianos — or even on future pianos. Gwendolyn Mok is an accomplished artist with a clear musical sense, but Ravel's music lost many of its finest qualities when played on the piano that had become obsolete even before it was made

(Anatole Leikin's articles have appeared in various musicological journals and essay collections; he has also recorded piano music of Chopin and Scriabin. Professor Leikin currently serves as an editor for The Complete Chopin - A New Critical Edition (Peters Edition London) and chairs the Music Department at University of California, Santa Cruz.)

©2002 Anatole Leikin, all rights reserved