The Silverman Concert

"What's that noise?" Bob Harley and I looked at each other in puzzlement. We thought we'd debugged the heck out of the recording setup, but there, audible in the headphones above the sound of Robert Silverman softly stroking the piano keys in the second Scherzo of Schumann's "Concerto Without Orchestra" sonata, was an intermittent crackling sound. It was almost as if the God of Vinyl was making sure there would be sufficient surface noise on our live recording to endow it with the Official Seal of Audiophile Approval. Bob tiptoed out of the vestry where we'd set up our temporary control room and peeked through a window into the church, where a rapt audience was sitting as appropriately quiet as church mice.

Quiet, that was, except for one good lady sitting right under the Manley stereo microphone. Larry Archibald, worried about autumnal coughs spoiling the recording, had placed a big bowl of throat lozenges at the entrance to the church. This lady, sucking away on her coughdrop, was absentmindedly playing with its cellophane wrapper. And playing. And playing. Right up to the moment when Robert Silverman triumphantly pounded out the plangent F-major chords at the end of the breakneck—Prestissimo possibile—final movement of the Schumann sonata.

Live recordings are like that. No matter how carefully you prepare and predict, something will go wrong. The trick is to have so much covered that you can confidently allow Fate to do her thing without it being a problem. I'm getting ahead of myself, however. What was almost the entire staff of this magazine doing with Canada's senior performing classical pianist in an Albuquerque church one frosty night in November 1992?

We first recorded Canadian pianist Robert Silverman back in 1990, in Santa Barbara, when he performed Brahms's F-Minor Piano Sonata and the three Opus 118 Intermezzi. The resultant album, Intermezzo, sold quite well, so we decided to go for something a little more ambitious the second time around: record in concert a recital of great examples of the Romantic piano repertoire. We wanted to put Bob Silverman on the spot—would the tension of live performance add a magical frisson to his already dynamic interpretations? We had never promoted live concerts before—but then, until 1987, we had never put on a hi-fi show, and until 1989, we had never released a recording.

The first decision involved finding a hall that would be suitable both for recording and for putting on a concert. I firmly believe that you don't record just an instrument; you capture a picture of the instrument in a sympathetic acoustic environment. You therefore actually record not the instrument, but the hall as it is being excited by the instrument's sound.

It's like landscape photography: the scene you're photographing is always there; the photograph is formed by the interplay between it and the light (Ansel Adams was a master at capturing that interplay). Northern New Mexico has a number of halls with acoustics to match our liquid light, but the main problem with almost all of them is noise. The acoustic of Santa Fe's Santuario de Guadalupe, for example, sounds delicious; it also has traffic passing by almost all the time. Yes, we might have been able to record there in the early hours of the morning, but the chances of getting an audience at that time would have been nil.

In my time at Stereophile, I've attended a number of classical concerts at an unusual venue: the First United Methodist Church in central Albuquerque. I had been impressed by the sympathetic nature of the acoustics of this relatively modern building, which seats an intimate-sized audience of around 650. Whether it was the King's Singers singing madrigals or the New Mexico Symphony performing Samuel Barber's Knoxville 1915, the auditorium's intrinsic sound reinforced the musical event without swamping it. Importantly, as with many other modern cities, the downtown location meant that there would be minimal traffic once the business day was over. In addition, the church administration feels that live classical music plays an important role in community life, and promotes an annual series of concerts.

It seemed ideal for our project, and Harry Hook, the Director of the church's Fine Arts Series, was enthusiastic about the idea. It was soon a done deal: Stereophile would promote two concerts featuring Robert Silverman in early November 1992; the church would allow us to mail announcements to their Fine Arts Series subscribers, as well as giving us a rehearsal day in October; and Albuquerque's Riedling Music Company would have a new 9' New York Steinway "D" piano available. All we had to do was come up with a suitable program.

[We were to capture two more Stereophile recordings in this wonderfully supportive acoustic: Sonata, recorded in 1993 but not released on CD until 1996 and LP until 1997, and Rhapsody, recorded and released on CD in 1997.—JA]