Chopin's Last Waltz
Robert Silverman (piano)
Reviewed as a Stereo DSD 128 download from NativeDSD
Pure pleasure. The spirit of Sheffield Lab lives on!
Audiophile LPs, such as those produced by Sheffield Lab, were all the rage in hi-fi listening rooms of my youth. For me, their no-compromise direct-to disc technology peaked in 1977 with a selection of Wagner excerpts played by Erich Leinsdorf and the Los Angeles Philharmonic (LAB-7, also available on CD). The seemingly unfettered range, outstanding clarity and sheer presence of that LP gave me great pleasure, allowing me to show off my student stereo to best advantage.
I had high hopes for the Compact Disc, but they were dashed when I listened to a batch of early offerings on a first-generation Sony player. It wasn’t until the advent of Super Audio and high-res downloads that I experienced anything like the range, precision and power of that remarkable Leinsdorf release. Given a readily available stock of audio excellence, do we really need ‘demo discs’ any more? Well, there still seems to be a demand for them, with such product persisting well into the digital age. Indeed, Sheffield Lab were particularly active in the 1980s and 1990s.
Which brings me to IsoMike, pioneered by Ray Kimber, CEO of the eponymous cable company. It’s a fairly new technological tweak that, like those Sheffield Lab LPs, aims for recorded sound of the highest quality. They have already issued a number of SACDs, test and sampler discs among them. The temptingly titled High Altitude Drums certainly looks interesting, although, at £40 for as many minutes of music, it ain’t cheap. Then again, audiophiles have always been prepared to pay for top-quality sound; indeed, those of us who buy high-res downloads are no strangers to (much too) expensive product.
So, what separates IsoMike’s approach from others of its ilk? The clue is in the title – a proprietary baffle system that isolates the microphones from what the company calls ‘the interference of inter-channel sounds that result in compromised fidelity’. Anyone interested in more detail should read "How It Works". As this is my first IsoMike review, I deliberately avoided too much research before listening. I also decided not to look at audiophile sites until I’d reached my own conclusions. However, I must confess that in the course of daily browsing I’ve seen a few posts about the pros and cons of this interesting process.
That’s the technical background. What about the artist and the music? The Vancouver-based pianist and pedagogue Robert Silverman is new to me. I see he’s recorded a handful of discs for the Marquis label, not to mention a seven-disc set of Mozart piano sonatas for IsoMike. At the time of writing, the latter was available from an Amazon third-party seller for an eye-watering £385. And in 1999 he recorded the Beethoven sonatas for Orpheum Masters; unusually, that was played into, and then reproduced by, a Bösendorfer Reproducing Piano (nla).
The Chopin pieces played here are all late works, including his final one, the posthumously published Mazurka in F minor. First up is the Fantaisie, in the same key, which makes a powerful impression. The playing is immensely assured and the clear, tactile sound is very striking. Fearless dynamics, a natural balance and rich/complex timbres, the hallmarks of a top-notch piano recording, are here in abundance. Not only that. One is keenly aware of where notes start and stop, the final ones allowed to fade into silence. There’s no vocalising and the pedal action is commendably quiet. In short, the sense of ‘being there’, of eavesdropping on a living, breathing musician at work, is quite extraordinary.
Silverman modulates from Apollo to Dionysius and back in the most effortless and disarming way, shaping and shading the music with consummate skill. And if that’s not praise enough, the A-flat Waltz has real charm and elegance. Just the right degree of lilt, I feel, and how sensitively articulated it all is. Playing of this calibre is a joy in itself, but a recording that reveals the subtle weave of Chopin’s writing as well as this one does is a treat indeed. When CDs first arrived, reviewers spoke of a veil being lifted from the music; that’s the overwhelming impression here.
And while I’ve heard more luminous accounts of the Nocturne in E major, this is a thoughtful, beautifully nuanced reading whose spell, once cast, is impossible to resist. Add to that a wonderfully wistful Prelude in C sharp minor and the jewelled upper reaches of the Op. 63/3 Mazurka, and you have the measure of this fine pianist. And the wellspring shows no sign of drying up, with a compact and closely argued performance of that posthumously published Mazurka.
Good programming is vital in recitals such as this, and if I have but one quibble it’s the preponderance and pairing of works in minor keys. Not a hanging offence, of course, but a few more in major ones would leaven the mood a little. That said, Silverman’s playing in the Op. 52 Ballade is as commanding and insightful as it gets. And before you carp about the short playing time, remember this recital was originally intended for release on LP. Besides, as any performer knows, it’s always best to leave one’s audience thirsting for more. Silverman’s detailed and engaging liner-notes are a welcome bonus.
To paraphrase that iconic Memorex advert from the 1970s: ‘Is it Silverman, or is it IsoMike?’ Well, as someone who listens to a great deal of high-res music – PCM and DSD – I’d say this is one of the most lifelike piano recordings I’ve ever heard. In other words, IsoMike does exactly what it says on the tin. That said, I’ve reviewed a raft of conventionally miked releases that aren’t far behind. Chief among them is Lara Downes’s America Again (Sono Luminus). Not surprisingly, that was one of my top picks for 2016. All in all, a feast for pianophiles.
Pure pleasure; the spirit of Sheffield Lab lives on!
Stereophile Magazine [Recording of the Month, Feb 2018] -
Silverman's Chopin is an unqualified success. Although every composition presented here is a familiar selection from Chopin's oeuvre, Silverman's conceptions of them delve deeply into the composer's inherent passions for his music and his love of melody. The overall architecture of Silverman's playing is solid and sure. Taken at slow tempos, the well-known Fantasie in f, Op. 49, particularly its placid Adagio, benefits from Silverman's deft, lingering touch. Perfectly projected, his statements are captured in ravishing, exquisitely balanced Direct Stream Digital (DSD) sound.
The recording presents a beautiful, multidimensional sound image, with a wide dynamic range and gorgeously sharp, true tone colors. Ray Kimber's IsoMike recording technique is the result of much experimentation over the years.
Performance and Sonics: 5 out of 5 stars
The Last Waltz is an all-Chopin album with Robert Silverman playing at the top of his game. Whether Brahms, or Mozart, and now Chopin, Silverman employs an elegance of touch and tone that is magical and moving. His playing channels Chopin as if this composer is not considered the most difficult tunesmith of them all. Silverman makes it sound so easy, it is unimaginable at times. I love his playing, now more than ever. Did not Silverman know audiophile productions are supposed to sound technically wonderful while the performance does not? He must not have gotten the memo!
All of the selections come from Chopin's final period of 1841-1849. They are beyond gorgeous and difficult. Silverman proves he can emotionally and technically master even the Fantaisie in F minor, an elegant yet mind-blowing exercise in beauty redefined in music. Robert Silverman must now be considered the top Chopin interpreter extant. Chopin's Last Waltz must also be considered a must own. A sequel is absolutely required!
The last Waltz is a reference recording with a bullet. Dynamics are unrestrained. Airiness and sense of space are unlimited. Imaging is palpable and gorgeously focused. Weight, slam, and scale are big and rounded between the speakers. This is a performance, not just a recording, in my reference systems. Ray and the team he has gathered here have brought us a masterpiece so lifelike and wonderful, I cannot contain my admiration.
A beauty in every musical way, Silverman has accomplished something really extraordinary. Such wondrous playing! Such wondrous audiophile perfection! Such a tremendous breakthrough in digital recording technique! Chopin's Last Waltz receives my very highest recommendation.
I've known and admired Robert Silverman as one of the guiding lights of Canadian classical music since the late 70s. Through his many recordings, teaching legacy and concerts throughout the world, Silverman is known as a deeply thoughtful artist, guided by music's structure and emotion rather than mere flashy technical displays.
With Chopin, an artist needs both; interpretation and chops. Best bring your A Game as you'll be competing with the very best in both performance and recording.
Silverman does bring both with his latest recording, produced and recorded by Ray Kimber and his crack team from IsoMike and KimberKable.
The artist never loses his elegant touch or the structure of a melodic phrase in the other exquisite repertoire. Like the best Chopin performances, Silverman invites you into a small parlour and he's playing for one. The one being you, not him.
The recording? Absolutely exemplary. We all know just how difficult it is to record a piano well; Kimber and his team nail the Steinway sound and Silverman's touch of it. Just the right amount of bloom but with plenty of power. If you have a good turntable and ancillaries, you'll be inviting both pianist and composer into your virtual parlour.
Very highly recommended.
IsoMike recordings are not only are they fine performances, but they have a glorious, open, transparent and spacious feel to them. Certainly Ray Kimber has gone a long way to overcome J. Gordon Holt's classic audiophile rule of "great recording/lousy performance, or lousy recording/great performance." The IsoMike series of recordings are great in both realms!
SACDs are limited to Single DSD (DSD 64), of course. Over the past several years, Ray has invested in updated equipment from Merging Technologies: the Horus and Hapi A/D converters. These have allowed him to step up the resolution of his recordings to Quad DSD. The results are extraordinary. What was very fine before, has been revealed as absolutely stellar at DSD 256.
And now, a much larger world of music lovers and audiophiles are going to be able to hear the results of Ray's ground-breaking work with IsoMike. Ray and NativeDSD.com have come to an agreement for NativeDSD.com to carry IsoMike. His first recording at NativeDSD.Com is Robert Silverman's superb performance of Chopin's Last Waltz. It is now available in Single, Double, and Quad DSD, in both stereo and four-channel multichannel at NativeDSD.com.
It's an absolutely brilliant performance by Silverman. As a lover of Chopin, I was quite taken by Silverman's understanding and performance of the master. Lovely! (As an aside, I met Robert Silverman at the 2017 Los Angeles-Orange County Audio Society Gala in early December. What a fine person Robert is! We were all blessed by Robert's performance of Chopin at that event, courtesy of Ray Kimber and Steinway. If you missed it, you really missed it!
It is time that I recognized Ray's many years of excellence in the recording arts with this 2017 Brutus Award.
Done, with great satisfaction!