Brighton Year-Round 2020
Lance Mok played first Schulhoff’s Fünf Pittoreseken, then Liszt’s Valse Oubliée 2 and 1, and finally Debussy’s Images Oubliées and the first of his 1915 Etudes.
A year ago Lance Mok gave a recital here bristling with the early 20th century but earlyish 19th too – Poulenc’s Eight Nocturnes, then Schumann’s Fantasie Pieces Op 111, and finally Hindemith’s 1922 Suite.
Not just refreshing and revelatory then, but it revealed Mok’s a superb talent, a fine musician with searching intelligence and very personable.
I wrote then: ‘he’s already picked out slightly neglected works that admirably suits him. He should more than carve a niche out. He can count these pieces back in the repertoire altogether. And about time too.’ Everything in this latest recital confirms that: Mok’s an adventurer.
This time he’s picked one composer to go with the last item, another to straddle the century, and back a bit to the whispering end of romanticism: Erwin Schulhoff, Claude Debussy, Franz Liszt. Time frame’s narrower, from 1880-1919.
Mok played first Schulhoff’s Fünf Pittoreseken, dating from 1919, and after Stravinsky’s Rag-Time of 1918, the second ever jazz-inflected classical piano piece – though back in 1908 there’s Debussy’s ‘Cakewalk’ from Children’s Corner. Well so early it’s still rag-time too.
Schulhoff (1894-1942) a victim of the Nazis was influenced by Dada and absurdism. He starts with an angular Foxtrott with Scott Joplin’s strut and off-accent signature, a fine sardonic twist Mok brings off with relish. As he does in the ‘Ragtime’ where in fact the previous piece is the real rag-time.
‘In futurum’ as Mok notes is proto-John Cage and his famous 1952 ‘silent piece’ 4’ 33” and silence is part of the point, tightly notated, strange and really worth hearing again and again, like the Cage all around us, as Cage says. ‘One-step’ recharges as Mok says, and we’re back to very similar language – perhaps a little difficult to differentiate unless you listen closely. Finally Maxixe is the only piece that though similar and strutty in its outer sections, we get a little real as opposed to prescriptive introspection. The central section is striking for its Debussyan whole-tones and late Debussyan sparseness.
This is pure Mok territory, with his clean attack and lucid witty sense of swing. The next proved his love of more oblique textures and again modernist sparseness even though they date from the earlier1880s.
Since Mok then moved to late Liszt, whose pioneering work in his last decade influenced so many. He wrote four Valse Oubliées and we know the first well. They’re essentially spectral dances of death, the kind of thing the hero of Lampadusa’s Leopard would dream as the illusory young woman came to dance away with his soul. Liszt’s own reminiscences can only be imagined, but they’re like Mephisto returning years after and hearing the ghost of the Mephisto Waltz. It’s different material though.
Liszt’s ‘Valse Oubliée No. 2’ from 1883 is a more hermetic, off-centred waltz, sparse and almost spectral as it vanishes. It rally needs hearing again. No. 1 from 1881 is better-known with a flittering élan and memorable waltz-theme: puckish, insouciant, winking on eternity with off-beats and a kind of butterfly glide to its rhythms. This is an immensely promising seam and I hope Mok returns to it.
Finally Debussy’s early (1894) Images Oubliées provide three works that are characteristic Debussy bit not quite yet of his piano writing. The first ‘Slow, melancholic and soft’ is exactly that, recalling Debussy’s even earlier arabesques and Petite Suite with melting Fauré and Massenet-like melodies.
‘In saraband tempo’ is rather similar, evoking an old Louvre portrait, an early version of the Sarabande from Debussy’s first really mature piano work, the 1901 Pour le piano. It presages more the kind of music we’d get in the two books of Images from 1905 and 1907. It’s a slow, rising-chord work about to emerge into the sunshine of its later incarnation.
Finally ‘Nous n’irons plus au bois’ is the song about bad weather turned into a toccata – something else Debussy did with the third and final movement of several suites, like Pour le piano and indeed one of the Images. It’s a traditional gambit from the days of the 18th century clavecinists like Couperin and Rameau, whom Debussy later paid explicit homage to in those Images. There’s a perpetuo-mobile feel here too though here Debussy accords images like ‘peacocks that spread their tails’ and ‘bells that keeps no beat’ if that helps.
Finally the first of Debussy’s 1915 Etudes: sharper more elusive territory, a sourer palate and a composer nearing his end whose twelve fireworks here are more avowedly close to Stravinsky. This is two years after The Rite of Spring (Sacre de Printemps) which Debussy played four-hands with the composer and quipped as Massacre de Printemps.
‘Five-Finger Exercise’ as homage to the manically prolific pupil of Beethoven, Carl Czerny (1791-1857) is a comic pricking out of a stalking bass on one finger and an interruption of Czerny’s famed pedagogic material, Graduum ad Parnassus, still in use. Gradually sweeping up in complexity it soon bristles its bony brilliance letting rhythms gather up the melody turning it into a memorable work.
Mok reinforces his impression last year – he’s a pianist of bristling oblique lyricism and spiky character – an ideal interpreter for piano music from say 1870s through 1930s. We should hear a lot more from him, with luck recording this and other repertoire.