First things first: this set is outrageously priced. I mean, $180 for only seven discs is more than a bit steep. When I first saw the price on the IsoMike website I was dumbstruck. The only recordings I buy at (or above) that price point are obscure Beethoven sonata cycles from Japan or Ring cycles conducted by men with the last name Keilberth. (The latter was really something of a mandatory purchase for me.) Granted, IsoMike had an introductory price of around $120 or so, but even then I thought it a bit pricey, so I dilly-dallied, and when I went back to buy, the price was back up to its original list price. I figured I would be priced out the market until a used set showed up, but then Amazon dropped their price to $125 for the set and I bought it. After all, I did buy Eric Heidsieck’s Mozart sonata cycle for the same price from HMV Japan, so why not this one? (I was none too happy about paying $125 for Heidsieck’s cycle, either, as good as it is; the touted SHM CDs are nothing special – maybe SHM really means Super High Markup.) I know IsoMike is a micro-label, and I know they need to turn a profit, and I know the set is limited (to 2400 sets, based on a sticker on the box), but that doesn’t mean I have to like paying such a high price.
Second things second: the sound is quite good. Superb, actually. But not necessarily any better than a good number of other piano recordings I own. The attack and decay of the notes, the tone, the dynamics: everything about the piano sounds just right, and exceedingly natural, by which I mean it sounds like a piano sitting in a nice sounding hall without a hint of obtrusive knob twiddling. But. But the sound is not perfect. There is noise throughout the set. It’s very low in level, and sounds rather like analog hiss from days of yore, but I don’t know if it’s hiss. It may simply be the sound of the empty hall, though it is higher up the frequency spectrum than such noise usually is. It could be something electronic in the hall. It could be hiss, indicating that something analog was used somewhere in the recording chain. I don’t know. What I do know is that it does not detract from the music in any way, and is only audible in the quietest – ie, silent – passages. Should it be there in such an expensive set? Well . . .
I should point out that I listened to one of the recordings in three different loudspeaker-based systems as well as through decent headphones. Ironically enough, my two pairs of Joseph Audio loudspeakers – the RM22, Mk II and RM25, Mk II, both with soft dome tweeters – more readily revealed this sound than either my cheapie, metal dome tweeter laden Monitor Audio RS6 bedroom speakers or my Beyerdynamic RT440 headphones, but in all cases the sound was easily audible at normal listening levels.
Anyway, now to the most important part of the set, the music. Truth to tell, the cycle didn’t start especially auspiciously for me. Mr Silverman’s take on K309 is good enough overall, but some of his phrasing just doesn’t sit well with me, especially in the last movement. Silverman obviously knows far more about the music than I ever will, but I know what I like, and this just doesn’t capture my fancy. Since I was able to only listen to this sonata in my first listening session, this made me worry. Any worries were unfounded. After this initial work, everything moves along more or less wonderfully. For instance, there’s a dramatic but not overcooked K311, a work that can easily be overdone. Then there’s K330, which I must say is truly top-notch, easily up to the level of any other version I’ve heard. K331 has some niftily delivered variations and a lovely menuetto and an alla turca movement that charms. There’s also a nicely stormy C minor sonata, prefaced by the C minor Fantasia, where one almost wishes the IsoMike array had been moved back from the piano a few more feet! Even in the most intense music, Silverman keeps things classical, if you will; he doesn’t try to make the music sound like it’s from the 19th Century, as a few pianists have done, nor does he play it in precious or even fussy fashion, and he certainly doesn’t play it in the Dresden Doll fashion of Walter Gieseking. (Please note that I’m not criticizing the great Gieseking in any way; I rather like his set.) His tempi tend to be on the leisurely side, but things never drag. In fact, or rather, in opinion, they move along most swimmingly.
That’s not all! The late sonatas are all superb, every last one. And such tasteful, beautiful embellishments in the slow movement of K570. The early sonatas can, at times, be troublesome, by which I mean boring and too long (I’m talking to you, K284), but not here. Silverman obviously enjoys playing at least some of this music – and I wouldn’t doubt he likes playing it all – as his discreet vocalizing demonstrates (it happens throughout the set), and he delivers some wonderful playing. It’s hard for me to think of a more beautiful rendition of the adagio from K280 than this one, for instance. And few takes on the aforementioned K284 are more entertaining.
All told, K309 excepted, this is a quite fine set. As is inevitable for a collector such as myself, I compared this set mentally to other cycles in my collection. I cannot say that Silverman quite matches up to my personal Holy Trinity in this repertoire – Michael Endres, Walter Klien, and Lili Krauss (mono, Music & Arts) – but the set is well worth many listens. I’m still not at all happy about the price, but I’m happy to own the set. Good stuff, indeed.
Now bring on that second LvB cycle!