Robert Silverman: Variations: Robert Silverman performs Beethoven Piano Music
Robert Silverman: piano.
Stereophile STPH017-2 CD. Robert Silverman, John Atkinson, prods. Graemme Brown, Ray Kimber, John Atkinson, Brett Terry, engs. John Atkinson, digital editing and mastering. DDD. 68:08.
Okay, you may have raised an eyebrow over the apparent lack of perspective I bring to this disc, since I write for Stereophile and not only count John Atkinson as a friend, but have accompanied him on many a recording field-trip. On the other hand, I had absolutely nothing to do with making this disc and if I don't tell you how fantastic it is, I suspect you won't hear about it from any of the other audiophile press. You see, to give this recording its due, they'd have to admit that Atkinson actually knows what he's doing—and by not acknowledging this CD's greatness, they're revealing that they wouldn't know great music making if it bit them on their . . . oh, let's just say ears.
Do you think I'm being too hard on the competition? Well, consider this: Variations is Robert Silverman's fourth Stereophile recording (his Atkinson-engineered Complete Beethoven Piano Sonatas was for the Orpheum Masters label), and the scant audio press reviews those recordings garnered were all somewhat sniffy, as though Bob Silverman were some a second-tier pianist the magazine had convinced to allow it to record in order to plaster its logo on the sleeve.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Silverman's talent is huge and had his ego only matched its towering proportions, he'd have been a jet-setting concert artist playing to rapt audiences five nights a week. He liked being married, however, and he liked being around to raise a family, so he chose instead a career teaching musicians how to think about music.
Oh yeah, while he was at it, he recorded over 25 CDs and managed to concretize on three continents—and, to the real cognoscenti of the keyboard, establish himself as one of the premier practitioners of what you might call the inner keyboard. Silverman didn't simply perform Brahms, Liszt, Rachmaninoff, and Beethoven, he got so deep inside their works that hearing him play was like hearing familiar pieces for the first time.
If you don't believe me, go back and listen to any one of his Stereophile recordings (or the Beethoven sonatas). Forget about the sound quality for a minute, just listen to Silverman's bold lines and subtle colors. Those are performances you could listen to for years and never reach the limit of their possibilities.
Add Variations to that list. How good is it? Well, if you really want the two richest hours of piano music ever recorded, I'd suggest you buy Glenn Gould's Goldberg Variations and Bob Silverman's Diabelli Variations. Free for nothing, you'll also receive the 33 Variations on an Original Theme in C Minor (WoO 80). When my time comes, if I can have those two hours first, I'll kick the bucket without complaint—pretty much all of life is contained within them.
Silverman's playing is bold and assertive. Beethoven was notoriously thorny and the Diabelli Variations are less a rumination on life than an argument with it. As Silverman puts it in his essay on the variations (worth an hour of your time right there), "As the work progresses, the waltz now seems to undergo a process of deconstruction to the point where it is literally pounded into particles in Var. 28 before undergoing a painful rebirth in the final five variations."
Yes! Life, death, rebirth—all take place as we listen and we still make it through to the other side singing. That's true art.
And it requires true artistry, not just on Silverman's part, but from the engineering staff as well. The recording is somewhat close in perspective—perfectly so in relationship to the work itself, which is, after all, more than a tad confrontational. The immediacy of Beethoven's arguments is reinforced by the immediacy of the sound.
And dynamics? Oh lordy, does this performance coax the whole dynamic spectrum out of the Steinway, the hall, and the cosmos. Silverman's quicksilver runs possess the liquidity of his live performances and the roar of his open-sustain crescendos is mighty mighty indeed.
Ultra-picky audiophiles might respond negatively to the audibility of pedal noises is the quiet passages, but I view that as proof of authenticity. This music was hand-made.
They have a word for that. When a craftsman reached the pinnacle of his abilities, he would create a work that demonstrated for the ages his mastery over his craft. That was called a masterpiece—and a masterpeice is precisely what Robert Silverman, John Atkinson, Graemme Brown, Ray Kimber, and Brett Terry have produced.