This set is a very special production, the cornerstone of Dr. Ray Kimber's remarkable series of IsoMike recordings. It comes as a lavish 7-disc set with fine documentation including notes on each work by Silverman himself. You get two-channel Redbook, two-channel and multi-channel SACD -- and you also get just about the finest sound quality ever provided for a solo piano recording. Only 2400 copies of this limited edition were produced, and I believe the edition, eagerly anticipated by many collectors, is now sold out. My set is number 66, and inscribed "To Phil Gold, With best wishes, Ray Kimber, Jan 2011, D.S.D. Rules!"
So who is Robert Silverman? A pianist and teacher, Silverman was born in Montreal in 1938, which makes him 69 at the time of the recording sessions in 2007. He was on the faculty of the University of British Columbia for 30 years and spends his time performing and recording. The highlights of his discography include the Grand Prix du Disque for his Liszt piano music and the complete Beethoven sonatas which was short listed for a Juno.
Let us get to the sound quality straight away. I have lived with this set for three months now, listening most of the time in SACD stereo, played on an EMM Labs XDS1. The image is wide and deep, the dynamics staggering, the tone color very faithful. Silverman's breathing and vocalising, quiet though they may be, reinforce the impression that he is in the room with you. When you switch to the Redbook layer there is an immediate coarsening of sound and a flattening of the image. I will tell you straight that those who claim the best Redbook matches the best SACD sound should be directed immediately to the nearest audiologist. The Redbook sounds as good here as Redbook ever does, but the extra bits of resolution in the DSD layer give you a much clearer treble, a more natural piano tone, and it makes the music altogether easier to listen to. In Dr. Kimber's suite at CES this year I had the opportunity to listen to extended extracts of this boxed set in multichannel, and the sound was even more spacious as a result, so those who have rear channels will appreciate the improvements these bring. There are no cheap tricks here with notes suddenly coming from behind you, but you do get a better feel of the recording venue, the Austad Stage at Weber State University.
The piano chosen for this occasion was a Steinway Grand, a rich resonant instrument in a perfect state of tuning. I'm not sure it is ideally matched to the scale of the Mozart Sonatas, but it seems very much in keeping with the way Silverman projects the sonatas: sober, weighty and reflective.
While I can admire Silverman's Mozart, and can point to a number of sonatas where the conception and execution are outstanding, I missed the magical, almost improvisatory panache with which Walter Klien plays these sonatas in his classic Vox Boxes. Klien's humour, pace, perfect phrasing and attention to the long line elevate the music to the highest level, bringing an overwhelming sense of joy and sadness, a direct path to the spirit of Mozart. After Klien, Silverman can seem four-square and occasionally even pedantic. His tempos are often very slow, not just in comparison to Klien, but to other great Mozartians such as Horowitz (yes Horowitz!), Brendel and, most especially, Dinu Lipatti. But let it be said clearly, none of these performers had the benefit of such outstanding recording quality, and that allows a most communicative and immersive experience.
Silverman excels in the most profound and forward looking of the sonatas, in particular the Fantasy & Sonata in C minor K475/457 and the Sonata in F K533/494. Here his slower tempos and carefully weighted playing reveal many details. While on the slow side, his readings are perfectly proportioned and projected. He is less comfortable with the earlier, simpler works, where his approach is a little heavy-handed.
Carefully researched and flawlessly played, this set yields few secrets that Klein's keen eyes have missed. This is a set I have come to respect more than to love.