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Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Chopin’s Last Waltz
Fantaisie in F minor, Op. 49 (1841) [14:56]
Valse in A flat major, Op. 64 No. 3 (1846-1847) [3:45]
Nocturne in E major, Op. 62 No. 2 (1846) [6:17]
Prelude in C sharp minor, Op. 45 (1841) [5:29]
Mazurka in C sharp minor, Op. 63 No. 3 (1846) [2:27]
Mazurka in F minor, Op. posth. 68 No. 4 (1849) [5:08]
Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52 (1842) [12:40]
Robert Silverman (piano)
rec. date and venue not specified
Reviewed as a stereo DSD128 download from NativeDSD. Also available in stereo/multi-channel, up to DSD256
Pdf booklet included
First released as a 180-gram LP
ISOMIKE 5606 [50:42]

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!

Dan Morgan



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