Recording of January 1985: Works for Piano

Debussy: Reflets dans l'eau;
Stravinsky: Sonata, 1924;
Schoenberg: Six Little Piano Pieces;
Ravel: Sonatina

James Boyk, piano
Performance Recording PR-4 (LP). James Boyk, prod., eng. AAA.

Performance Recordings is the closest thing to a one-man label. James Boyk is president, A&R director, musical director, recording engineer, production manager, jacket notes author, and the star performer. He is also Artist in Residence and lecturer in music and engineering (specifically sound recording and reproduction) at Cal Tech. And he happens to be one of digital's most ardent detractors, having conducted, and widely publicized, several controlled listening tests that proved to his satisfaction that digital recordings are destructive to musical sound. (I will not question his methodology or conclusions here; suffice it to say that James is as stalwartly pro-analog and anti-digital as it is possible to be.)

As their name implies, all Performance Recordings to date have been taped at concert performances, before astonishingly quiet audiences. The jacket notes make no mention of, one way or the other, of editing, but if these recording are in fact unedited chronicles of live performances, Mr. Boyk must rank as one of the finest technicians the pianistic world has ever known. If there are any flubs on his discs, they are minor enough to escape attention. I cannot recall having heard any.

PR-4 is a program of four short works of wildly disparate styles from Impressionism to Atonality, which means there will probably be something on this disc to please and something to offend practically everybody. My musical growth came to a screeching halt with Stravinsky, so I am not qualified to critique Boyk's performance of the Schoenberg. But of the others, I felt most comfortable with his Stravinsky. I prefer a rather most flexible (okay, romanticized) approach to Debussy and Ravel than we have here. but I emphasize that that is my own personal bias. Others I have talked to have said they cared less for Boyk's Stravinsky than they did for the Impressionist pieces. So, each to his own.

Actually, fine performances of all of these works may be available elsewhere, from artists of far greater renown than Mr. Boyk, but I am willing to take a sizeable bet that there is not another recording whose sound can hold a candle to PR-4.

To begin with, this is definitely not a self-consciously high-powered hi-fi recording, like the closely miked Japanese RCA system-buster of Beethoven's "Appassionata" sonata that almost got a lot of audiophiles hooked on solo piano music some years ago. This one is, rather, exactly what it is claimed to be: An audio chronicle of a concert recital, as heard from that legendary "best seat in the house."

At the proper listening level (footnote 1), the piano is about 15 feet in front of you, in a moderately sized acoustic space that is neither excessively live nor dead. It is merely "there," as it should be. The stereo imaging is quite extraordinary, with the piano resolutely occupying a space about half as wide as the distance between the speakers and staying there! None of the notes splatter outwards to the one extreme or the other—a tribute both to the remarkable pattern uniformity of the (ribbon) microphones and to the lack of uncontrolled reflections in the recital hall. It all hangs together so well that it is difficult to remain aware of the fact that this is a recording. Would that I could say that about more records.

The only jarring note in the whole thing was the audience applause, which, absent from the program up to the end, suddenly appears after the Ravel from in front! I realize that this is the best one can do with only two reproducing channels, but the frontal presentation of the piano and its acoustical environment are so convincing that hearing applause in the wrong place rather shattered the illusion I had become so comfortable with for the past 40-plus minutes.

All in all, though, this is one of the most astonishingly realistic recordings of a grand piano I have every heard, and one that can be appreciated equally for its sonics or for the music. Boyk's recordings continue to improve with each new release but I don't know how much better they can get than this. A winner!—J. Gordon Holt

Footnote 1: A really well-miked piano recording has only one listening volume setting that balances the perceived volume of the instrument with its perceived distance.

dalethorn's picture

Another good tip from Stereophile - I just ordered a SACD recording from Performance Recordings!

Update: Got email from Boyk asking "Where did you hear about us?" Ain't that something!