by Anthony Kershaw
OrpheumMasters (Ten CDs)
I thought of kicking myself after hearing the first couple of CDs from Robert Silverman’s new ten-volume set of the 32 Beethoven Piano Sonatas. So involving is the music making, I wished I had attended his live performances in Toronto last year. In fact, the Canadian pianist has given recitals of the complete sonatas in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto and Seattle, and did so before committing the music to disc. From the reviews quoted in his press package, the qualities of the concerts reflect much of the magnificent music making found on the new CDs.
Tackling the most important series of works in the piano literature must be an awesome task, however, one undertaken only by musicians with total control over their technique and musical ideas. While no set, including my personal favourite, Artur Schnabel (EMI), is a perfect statement of a pianist’s art, a commitment to musical truth and beauty must unify the overall picture if the set is to be competitive. Schnabel, Yves Nat (EMI) and Richard Goode (Nonesuch) in their complete sets achieve this. Happily, Silverman has a clear vision, too, and with the musicianship to see it through.
Silverman plays phrases with clean lines, accompanied by a balanced and very detailed left hand (his Waldstein is a terrific example of this). Many of the melodies ache with beauty and his touch delights the ear in just about every movement. Whether thundering or gentle, many phrases suggest the authority of a master pianist. All sonatas, from the immature but charming Opus 2, No.1 to the drama, pathos and sublimity of the final sonatas, are played with equal weight and reverence.
Silverman’s weapon of choice for this particular recording is the Bösendorfer 290SE Reproducing Piano (Silverman is usually a Steinway artist). As OrpheumMasters President David Lemon explains: ‘Robert Silverman familiarized himself with the demanding techniques of the magnificent Bösendorfer 290SE Reproducing Piano. To their normal nine-foot grand piano, Bösendorfer added Wayne Stahnke’s system of sensors that measures each hammer and pedal activity. The measurements are recorded on a computer, capturing information that can be edited and subsequently played back through the piano’s mechanism.’ It was this playback that was recorded for release. In case this unnerves some of the Luddites among us, Lemon adds ‘the Bösendorfer’s most significant quality is its capacity to reproduce music recorded on it with atomic accuracy.’ I feel better now.
Stereophile Editor John Atkinson moonlights as engineer, and what outstanding results he has achieved. Through my detailed reference system (Audio Research amplification, Gallo Solo Nucleus loudspeakers, Rega Planet 2000 and Metronome Technologie CD-1V Signature CD players, and Synergistic Research and van den Hul cables), I really enjoyed the sound of Silverman’s Bösendorfer and the acoustic in which it is recorded. The sound resonates in the acoustic only briefly, giving a crystal clear view of the living room sized setting. All octaves sound wonderful, but the bass just pounds in this recording, never blurring when competing with the right hand. Fantastic!
Listening to this amount of musical information proved to be a very pleasurable experience. I admit to being a trifle disappointed at the beginning of my sessions. The opening movement of a favourite sonata, Les Adieux, suffered from a fairly static tempo, and when compared to Mikhail Pletnev’s fabulous version on Homage a Rachmaninov (DGG), it was really earthbound. Silverman certainly adheres to Beethoven’s ‘Adagio’ marking (I used G. Henle Verlag’s Urtext edition score for reference), but the square phrasing and sluggishness are in sharp contrast to many of the other sonatas where the tempos seem to be judged just right. The slow movements from the Pathetique and Moonlight were so very musical, with a ringing tone and heartfelt phrasing. Then, eschewing the ’safety last’ regimen of Schnabel, but still sounding exciting, he takes the daunting Hammerklavier in stride.
The great final sonatas receive wonderful performances, with Op. 109 particularly satisfying. Silverman captures the rhapsodic nature within the confines of Beethoven’s strict form. The opening movements are, at times, delicate or restless, highlighting a very clear technique that is always in service of his interpretation; no cheap thrills, here. The theme from the last variation movement is heartfelt and beautifully balanced. For my taste, no one comes close to Schnabel in relating the ’still-life essence’ of this block-like melody and its subsequent variations, but Silverman’s singing tone is lovely and conveys Beethoven’s depth of meaning.
And so it goes - a singular vision portrayed in the most musical terms. The playing is certainly on the level of Goode, Charles Rosen and Stephen Kovacevich; all are members of my favourite Beethoven performer’s list. To that list, I will be adding Robert Silverman. If you are in the market for a complete set in the finest sound available, look no further than Silverman. While not quite the equal of the great Schnabel and Nat sets, it does say many wonderful things, is superbly recorded and beautifully packaged. Very highly recommended.
Robert Silverman Responds:
It is particularly gratifying when a critic is not only sympathetic to an artist’s work, but is sharply attuned to his specific artistic goals. I am well aware that endeavoring to bring the notes on a page to life as vividly as possible, while neither adding anything that is not there, nor subtracting anything that is there, is not the easiest path to popular success. This is certainly not the only way of playing; nor is it the only way of playing well. However, for better or worse, it’s the only way I can perform music of this sort and feel that I’m doing an honest day’s work in the bargain. And to be fair, it’s the only way I know of to allow Beethoven’s astonishing range and richness of expression to be heard on its own.
Other decisions were made with equal deliberation: I am still a loyal Steinway artist, and for much of the repertoire, prefer its brilliance, resonance and full bass. Nevertheless, I suspect the Boesendorfer, with its leaner harmonics, provides a closer approximation to what Beethoven imagined a piano might sound like in the future, and I am glad to have had the opportunity to record the sonatas on such a fine instrument.
Finally, John Atkinson and I are appreciative that you understood that this is the sound of a Boesendorfer, (not a resonant Steinway), recorded in a large room cum recital hall (not a church or auditorium), and that you noted the astonishing accuracy of the recording’s sonic qualities in your very well-written review.