Brahms: 25 Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel, Op. 24; Schumann: 12 Études Symphoniques, Op.13 (1837 — 1st edition). Robert Silverman, piano

by Anthony Kershaw on January 21, 2014 · 0 comments

in Classical Recordings

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Robert Silverman, in a wonderful Indian Summer of recording, continues to release gem after gem on CD. This new CD of two seminal works for solo piano is even better, in fact it’s a treasure.

Longtime readers of Audiophilia will know that I’m an admirer of Silverman’s playing style. He has chops galore, earned the hard way. He’s also an incredibly musical person. This musicality expresses itself the purest in music of the great German Romantics — Beethoven, Schumann and Brahms.

The new Orpheum Masters disc contains Schumann’s 12 Études Symphoniques, Op. 13 (in the 1837 1st edition) and one of my favourite classical works for any instrument, 25 Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel, Op. 24 by Brahms. A nice addition to the CD is an early version of the Schumann work — the theme and five posthumous variations (published in 1890).

The Schumann piece was hitherto unknown to me. It was with great delight that Silverman took me along for the most musical ride (with the help of IMSLP scores). The 12 Études are based on a theme by Baron von Fricken, and Schumann gives it the royal treatment.

I fell in love with the Brahms Handel Variations while a student in London. I was hired by my college to open the stage door and page turn, if necessary, for a competition featuring the Variations. There were 25 competitors. I can’t remember who won, but there were many musical performances. My primary memory of the work was the perfect construction, the melodies, and the technical difficulties. I was made aware of how the important Handel solo made or broke the work. It appears square and easy. It’s not.

Silverman nails Handel’s theme and the subsequent 25 variations, not forgetting the wonderful fugue that closes the work. He makes Brahms sound effortless but with serious gravitas behind the notes (same with the Schumann). Both Schumann and Brahms were very particular about dynamics and marks of expression. Silverman follows their leads beautifully. But, there are so many musical choices he makes, especially with rubato that allow the Etudes and Variations the freedom to sing. It’s nice to be kept on your toes while listening. Musical surprises are good. It’s this very musical rubato that bumps Silverman’s Brahms to my new favourite, above a long loved Garrick Ohlsson LP.

The recordings are from two locations. The Schumann was recorded in Goshen, Indiana, in 2008 by John Atkinson and the Brahms in October 2013 from Pyatt Hall, Vancouver, recorded by Don Harder. Both are similar in the natural resonance of Silverman’s Steinway. The balance of the instrument is captured beautifully in both locations. The block chords of 12 Études Symphoniques theme is instructive. Silverman’s voicing is perfect and the engineering captures this elusive piano delicacy beautifully. While you’re there, listen to the complex trill bang in the middle of the thorny soundstage. Clear as a bell.

I’m not sure how Silverman will stack up against your favourite Schumann Etudes, but I can tell great playing when I hear it. The Schumann receives great playing. In the bargain, you are getting a world class Brahms Handel Variations. Like I said, more treasure then gem.

Original Release Date: December 21, 2013
Label: Orpheum Masters
Time: 74:57

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