Review by Paul Merkley FRSC
Toronto ON July 9th 2018
My friend has worked with me five mornings a week to transform my physical health from a precarious state to a point that I can enjoy and participate fully in life. He did not realize what a very discerning listener he is. Now I invite him only to those musical events that I am sure will be of the highest quality in subtlety, nuance, and beauty of musical tone. Will the pianist clunk the wooden keys or make the piano sing? If I fear the former, I do not invite him. If the latter, I encourage him to join me.
As we drive to Westben, my thoughts turn to music. I have recently caught up with one of my former teachers, the incomparable Damjana Bratuz, who taught me to strive for beauty of tone. Damjana asked me if I remembered the playing of one of her colleagues. ‘He played the instrument as if it were a typewriter’, I said, and the distance between us caused by the years of absence melted away instantly. For that is the question. Put another way, is one playing hammers and keys, or levers and strings?
I remember another teacher, the celebrated Orazio Frugoni, who brought me to Italy to study with him. When I came to my first lesson, he had my audition tape cued to a specific spot. He turned it on and we listened to two bars of my playing. ‘These two bars are good’, he said. ‘We can work on the rest’.
I think of the young, talented pianist Ruby Jin, who sent her audition tape to my department, and whom I hastened to beg to cross the ocean to study with us. She recently graced my home with her playing, and that showed my friend all the difference in musical sound.
I think of Paula Lin, another fine pianist. At her jury, I pointed out the wonderful qualities of some of her playing in which she achieved what is called ‘jeu perlé’ or the playing of pearls. Another member of the jury moved quickly to correct me. ‘We do not speak of jeu perlé today,’ he stated.
And that is the problem, I thought. Is it about keys and hammers, or levers and strings? But my remark resonated with Paula, who quoted a Chinese poem about music to me, ‘Your playing is like the falling of delicate pearls’, she said.
I think of my four-hand partner. Working to recover techniques left dormant during years of teaching, we struggle to make the most beautiful sounds come out of the instrument. His wife is our severest critic. How often she says, ‘Stop clunking!’ (she is a string player).
We reach the venue. There is a Steinway piano on ‘stage’ in a barn. My friend, who has been navigating, and wondering if we will ever get to the right place, remarks that there are a lot of people. The barn is almost full. ‘Will the open barn doors affect the acoustics?’ he asks. ‘Will it sound the way Ruby made it sound at your house?’ Good questions.
Silverman begins the all-Chopin program with the Prelude in C-sharp minor. The dynamics are beautifully nuanced, but in one or two places the left hand over-balances the right, and the dissonance is exaggerated. He corrects the imbalance immediately and all is well. Has anyone else heard the slight anomaly? My friend has.
Silverman undertakes the second sonata, Sonata No.2. He plays with great ease and an economy of motion, seldom lifting his hands more than an inch or two above the keyboard. The playing seems almost effortless. Some sound is lost through the open doors, but overall the acoustics are very good. ‘He has the touch’, my friend remarks, and he is right.
He plays the second movement, the Scherzo. The harmonies are well expressed. The touch is right. Nothing is forced. And he reaches the final, quiet chord. He holds it in the right hand, and we listen to it ring, and ring, and ring, slower growing softer until I begin to wonder whether it is still ringing in reality or only in my charmed mind (in case I have not explained well, the piano is also an instrument of illusion—it cannot in actuality sustain notes the way a bowed instrument can; we must create that effect with pedal, touch, tone, and intent). Finally he releases the chord. It has been sounding all that time.
Silverman performs the famous funeral march, with a beautiful singing quality, and clear voice leading. He seems hardly to move, and he is in no hurry.
After the intermission comes the piece I have been waiting for, the Polonaise Fantasy. He lets the beautiful, rising arpeggios of the opening unfold slowly, calibrating the notes so that each successive one is just a bit softer, playing the highest only slightly above the threshold for our hearing it. I am mesmerized.
The performance is wonderful. As he bows he cannot suppress a huge grin. ‘He crushed that and he knows it’, I remark to my friend. ‘Look how happy he is!’
Of the three waltzes the Minute Waltz charms me the most. The rhythm is lovely, and the slight agogic details that make the waltz a dance come out just right.
The waltzes are followed by the fourth ballade, beautifully undertaken, well phrased, well paced. After the ovation, he plays Chopin’s last mazurka as an encore. I think of myself. Is it too much to hope for that I might age like this, growing older in a profound love of music?
The barn empties rapidly because there is an eightieth birthday party cake decorated like a piano outside.
I linger in the barn to ask a few words of Maestro Silverman. Should I just blurt out that he must not retire? I ask what his concert schedule will be like next year. He looks at me with a wary expression. It will not be too heavy; he is ‘winding down’.
I thank him for his playing, and tell him that I have heard him forty years earlier, and that, if he will allow the comment, he plays even better today than he did before. He answers immediately, correcting the young sixty-something whipper-snapper he is speaking with, ‘It ought to be better. If it’s not better, why should I be up here, especially at this age? The same will be true when I am ninety. It must always be better’.
I praise his touch, his carefully chosen and well executed dynamics. He scrutinizes me. Who am I to speak of touch, of tone? I hear his unspoken question and answer it. ‘I studied with Bratuz and Frugoni,’ I offer.
His eyebrow arches. Now he is at ease. ‘Frugoni at Eastman?’ he asks. I explain he was already in Florence. I thank him again, and say that if I could do half as well … This time the teacher in Silverman comes out. He interrupts me, taps his forehead, and says ‘it all starts here’. And indeed it does.
Pianist Robert Silverman
The Barn at Westben
Happy Eightieth: Silverman at Westben
It is a musical instrument on which keys operate levers at the end of which are padded hammers that strike strings that vibrate and resound in wood. Is it a percussion instrument or a stringed instrument? The answer, which seems to elude many, is that it is a percussion instrument that is meant to sound like a stringed instrument, or, even better, like a beautiful singing voice. It is with this perspective that my friend and I set out to hear the eightieth birthday recital of Robert Silverman.
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Pianist Robert Silverman