Robert Silverman Plumbs Beethoven's Depths in MQA Sound

Just in time for the New Year, Audio High has released a new set of 23 of Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas, performed live by Robert Silverman and available in MQA, hi-rez, CD-quality, and MP3 formats. If the prospect of one of Canada's most feted pianists offering his mature thoughts on Beethoven in superb sound is not, in and of itself, sufficient reason to tempt you, the fact that the MP3 files can be obtained for free, with the others available for a donation to the Silver Linings non-profit charity, certainly will be. 100% of the proceeds will fund Silver Linings' many projects, which currently include helping design and fund the automation equipment installed throughout a new wing of Lucille Packard Children's Hospital.

The recordings were produced by Michael Silver, whose Audio High music, theater, and home automation retail locations in California's Los Angeles and Mountain View and Mexico's Los Cabos have together sponsored 16 Silver Linings for-charity concerts. Mark Willsher, whose credits include the soundtracks for Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films, recorded Silverman playing the sonatas live on a Steinway in San José's intimate, acoustically superior Le Petit Trianon between September 2010 and April 2011. Willsher also did the mastering, with Zach Miley called in for the final editing.

"I've known Robert for a long time," Silver told Stereophile by phone. "He has a very special way of playing music. There are a lot of great Beethoven pianists in the world today, some more technically adept than others. After listening to a lot of their recordings - I've spent my entire life listening to these sonatas, playing them over and over while continuing to new things about them—I've discovered that Bob has a special way of bringing out the inner lines of the music.

"In addition to Bob's playing being wonderful and beautiful, he brings out things you've never heard before, and unifies the sonatas in miraculous ways. Take Op.111, for example, which is the greatest piano sonata ever written. While it's technically difficult, its greatest challenges are not technical, but rather because it's such a spiritual and delicate piece to play. If you don't have the kind of musical wisdom that Bob has, it doesn't work. But if you play it right, it's the most spiritual piece of music you've ever heard in your life. It's just amazing."

Silverman affirms that there is wisdom in every note of Beethoven's sonatas. He also believes that, save for a handful of exceptions, Beethoven wrote no extraneous notes.

"There isn't a single note that doesn't belong in these pieces exactly as and where it is," he said by phone. "Once you know all the sonatas, you realize that, by playing them, you're participating in an incredible process of artistic growth as you see Beethoven go from sonata to sonata, trying out things that no one has ever done before.

"Over the course of my life, I've rediscovered Beethoven again and again, and found new meaning in every note. He has a range of expression that few composers have had before or since. To hear him go from violence to tenderness is awe-inspiring. His early slow movements are excruciatingly beautiful. It's not that Mozart and Haydn's aren't, but Beethoven has the ability, from the second sonata on, to take that arrow and aim it right at your heart."


Robert Silverman (left) and Audio High's Michael Silver (right)

Heart is certainly the motivating force behind the recording project. Michael and Claire Silver were inspired by the cystic fibrosis diagnosis of their daughter, Rachel, to start Silver Linings in 1997 as a way "to enhance people's lives through music, film, and art." In addition to funding cystic fibrosis research and local music programs for children, their 501(c)(3) non-profit has funded a special room at Stanford Children's Hospital where kids can see music performances and films, including pre-releases of Pixar movies. Now they've moved on to the Lucille Packard Children's Hospital's new wing.

Silverman was happy to return to the sonatas. When he initially recorded all 32 of them with John Atkinson in 2000 for the now-defunct Canadian label, OrpheumMasters—the entire run has since sold out—they were set down in a less than ideal setting on a Bösendorfer. (The hall was too small for the piano but JA was not allowed to move the piano into a room location where the acoustics would work better with its sound.) This time, the Steinway artist was able to record in a better acoustic on a finer piano, and to offer more mature takes on some of the sonatas he had learned for the first time a decade earlier.

Silverman was also exceedingly honest with himself by choosing to release only those 23 interpretations he felt represented improvements on his initial recorded efforts. We, as well as many thousands of children, are the ultimate beneficiaries.

COMMENTS
dalethorn's picture

Now this is interesting - a more luminous sound, in a better acoustical setting - what we've all been waiting for.

Edit: I wish I knew how big the "CD quality" zip file is - it's showing more than 6 gb downloaded and still going.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

And the total time was....?????

dalethorn's picture

Not as bad as I thought - about 100 minutes on a DSL phone line. How's that for high-tech? I'm adding 320k MP3 conversions to my iPhone7 at the moment, and will be heading off to my favorite coffee shop to chat up the staff, and have them listen to a few snippets on my new Apple Airpods. Back at home, we will be playing FLAC conversions of the WAV tracks on a Macbook Pro and DragonFly DAC.

jimtavegia's picture

I don't think that as fine a piano as Steinway makes, Bosendorfer needs to apologize for their superb pianos. I also own the JA/Silverman boxed set and consider it a fine recording. I think that if you happened to be a fly on the wall when the recording was made, what is on those discs is what you would have heard. I know it is not 2496, but still very excellent.

dalethorn's picture

A year or so ago, someone pointed me to some samples of each piano, as a test of the different tonalities of each. My impression was that the Bosendorfer had a slightly darker sound, but the recordings weren't made for the purpose of comparison, so I can't be sure of what the typical differences are.

jimtavegia's picture

Wrote a great book years ago as he was the Master Traveling Technician for Horowitz and Gould for a while. Any piano can be voiced to bright or dark, firm or light key strike as the player wishes. It is the job of the Master Technician to meet the needs of the artists he works with.

I had a chance to play Horowitz's piano after his passing as it made its tour around the Steinway dealers and the tone was remarkable, but the key strokes much too light for me as I make too many mistakes, but Horowitz loved to play lightning fast which required a light touch.

There are a number of great piano manufacturers around also including Fazioli. All can be voiced to what ever the artist wants, including doping the hammer felts to make the piano bright, but this is not recommended for older artists whose diminished hearing will have them wanting too bright a sounds that would be overbearing to the audience most likely.

I would also put a properly prepared 9 foot Yamaha or Kawai in this same category. As they also mentioned, the room plays a huge part of it when recording as well as the microphones. A bright piano could be tamed with the use to vacuum tube or ribbon mics as well.

Too many variables that make slighting a Bosendorfer not quite accurate.

PeterMrozik's picture

Sir, you are clearly quite knowledgeable on the question of Steinway and Bosendorfer pianos and I have a question you may be able to answer. While doing some internet browsing I ran across references to Bosendorfer Imperial Grand Pianos which I understand have a full 8 octaves with 97 keys, with the "extended range" (my term, I apologize if there is a better way to refer to this) keys being located at the bass end of the keyboard. In reading about this, I found that there may have been some pieces written specifically for this configuration. I wonder, do you know if there are any recordings that include the full range of the keyboard? I have not been able to identify any, but I suspect that I am simply not able to construct a search correctly to find this. Any advice you might offer would be most appreciated.

jimtavegia's picture

I do accept your homework assignment (lol) and I promise to do some research and get back to you. Send an email to me at jamestavegia@gmail.com and will share this info as I will get on it.

They did put extra keys on some models, the value of which I am not sure of, especially in the higher register, but that does not mean it did not serve a purpose they intended.

As Sherlock would say...."The game is on".

Regards,

Jim

jimtavegia's picture

http://www.boesendorfer.com/en/media-data/boesendorfer-music-libary

You might check this link as it has a number of recommended recordings from Bosendorfer artists, some of which I will buy myself later today as I go through them in more detail. I would have no doubt that any artists would feel slighted having the opportunity to play a Bosendorfer Grand Piano. I'm sure it would be a wonderful experience to play one of the best pianos in the world.

I am old, but they are all more than my first 4 houses cost, but I would guarantee you that are well worth their prices, no doubt about that. Great beauty can be found within those black and white keys. If I had spent half the time playing the piano as I did playing baseball, I know I would be a very good player now. One of my biggest regrets. I urge all of my math students in middle school to try and find and instrument they might like and get into band or take chorus as that can last you a lifetime and bring great enjoyment.

jimtavegia's picture

The samples I listened to sounded very nice and well recorded. I listen through my computer set up of a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 and Steinberg UR-22 24/192 usb dac's and my powered JBL LSR 305 monitor speakers and it sounds very nice to me. Look forward to hearing it on my real gear and in CD quality. My main headphones are AKG K701s (my favs) and (2 pair) K271's. I also have some Sennheiser HD 380's and 2 pairs of Sony 7506's in my studio. Portable wise I use Shure IEM's: SE-215's which are pretty nice for all of $99. Not the best, but still nice.

dalethorn's picture

I need to make one more plug for this music, and there's a lot of it - 70 tracks total. The consistently excellent playing amazes me, insofar as the size of this work. If there were a special diet or exercise regimen that Mr. Silverman follows to stay so fresh through all of this, I'd sure like to know.

jimtavegia's picture

The editing out of errors could be a plus or minus for some, but I enjoy the presentation as it is what was heard in the venue, perfect or not. I considered it a good buy then for $65.00.

RobertSilverman's picture

I consider myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to record the Beethoven sonata cycle twice in my career. Both were happy experiences. I am a Steinway artist by choice, so I cannot apologize for my preference for a Steinway piano over all others. That said, the Boesendorfer on which I recorded the first set is a lovely instrument, with a warm, intimate tone. The sonata set is, to my knowledge, the largest single undertaking on the company's 290SE Reproducing Piano. Still, three factors worked against the total success of the project:

1) the piano reproduced my actual performance with great accuracy. However, because I was not actually AT the keyboard while it was being played, the sound of my fingers striking the keys, be it a thump, a slap, or a click, was absent. This extraneous noise is a far greater component of the overall sound of an instrument, as well as the artist's sonic conception, than one might at first imagine. Good pianists even factor into their performance what part of the finger is used to strike each note. Consequently, the original recording consistently lacked a "bite" on each note that left me at least, with a sense that the instrument was far duller than it actually is.

2) The acoustics of the high-ceilinged but relatively narrow room resulted in standing waves that the ear can adjust to, but microphones cannot. John Atkinson was aware of this from the beginning, but there was only so much he could achieve with this room, especially given a further circumstance:

3) We were not permitted to move the piano, even an inch. Of course, moving the piano to another hall with better acoustics was not even a topic one could delicately broach. It is interesting that somewhat after my recording was made, Keith Johnson recorded Dick Hyman (that's his name) in a fabulous solo jazz recital in the same room. He had three full days to set up the mikes as opposed to John's 2 hours or so. Most importantly, circumstances in the house now permitted the piano to be moved around as necessary. So yes, the sound on his recording was a little better, but not by a lot. They were both the identical instrument in the same acoustically flawed space.

Finally, a word about the performing artist. Not that I was a rank beginner when the first set was made around the turn of the century, but I confess that a goodly number of the sonatas had been studied (albeit taught frequently) for the first time especially for this project. It came off well enough for me to sign my name to it gladly, even now. Still, it is only natural that I would have been more comfortable the second time around a decade later, especially now that I was performing on my "home" instrument in a hall with excellent acoustics.