In a career spanning more than five decades, Robert Silverman has climbed every peak of serious pianism: lauded performances of the complete sonata cycles by Beethoven and Mozart; concerts in prestigious halls across the globe; orchestral appearances with many of the world’s greatest conductors; and award-winning recordings distributed internationally.
Recognized as one of Canada’s premiere pianists, Robert Silverman has reached a level of musical and technical authority that can only be accomplished after years of deep commitment to the instrument and its vast literature. Many aspects of Silverman’s playing are frequently noted: a polished technique, an extraordinary range of tonal palette, an uncanny ability to sing his way into the heart of a phrase, and probing interpretations of the most complex works in the repertoire.
The distinguished pianist has performed in concert halls throughout North America, Europe, the Far East and Australia. Under the batons of such renowned conductors as Seiji Ozawa, John Eliot Gardiner, Gerard Schwarz, Neeme Järvi, and the late Kiril Kondrashin and Sergiu Comissiona, he has appeared with orchestras on three continents, including the Chicago Symphony, the Sydney Symphony, the BBC (London) Symphony, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestras, and every major orchestra in Canada.
Robert Silverman's discography includes over 30 CDs and a dozen LPs. His recording of Liszt's piano music received a Grand Prix du Disque from the Liszt Society of Budapest, while his widely-acclaimed 10-CD recording of all thirty-two Beethoven sonatas was short-listed for a Juno Award. His 7-CD album of all the Mozart Sonatas was released in 2010.
In 1998 Robert Silverman was named the first winner of the Paul de Hueck and Norman Walford Career Achievement Award for Keyboard Artistry, administered by the Ontario Arts Council Foundation, in recognition of "his high level of artistry, his moving interpretations of a wide range of music...and his commitment and contribution to music in Canada."
Robert Silverman resides in Vancouver where he was a faculty member at the University of British Columbia for thirty years, served a 5-year term as Director of the School of Music in the 1990s, and was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters in 2004. He now devotes himself full-time to concertizing and recording. He is frequently heard on the CBC English and French radio network; a Steinway artist, he has recorded for EMI, Stereophile, Marquis Classics, OrpheumMasters and CBC Records. He has also lectured on piano music for the Celebrity Cruise line.The two works by Béla Bártòk represent compositions of great significance in the career of this celebrated composer.
The 1923 Dance Suite was commissioned by the city of Budapest — along with Kodaly’s Psalmus Hungaricus and Dohnanyi’s Festival Overture — to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the unification of the towns of Buda, Pest, and Obuda into one large city. As an orchestral work, the Dance Suite became immensely popular immediately after its premiere, but since Bártòk was an accomplished pianist, it is no surprise to learn that it also exists in an authentic piano version. What is surprising, however, is the degree to which the keyboard setting surpasses its better-known sibling in its ability to project the work’s clarity, and its vital rhythmic and percussive aspects.
Although each of the five dances possesses a strong folk-like character, they are all completely original. By this point in his career, largely through his pioneering ethno-musicological studies, Bártòk had managed to imbue his entire being with the idioms of diverse peasant peoples, transfusing the most vibrant elements of folk art into his own creativity. Granted, the folk music of Central and Eastern Europe, Turkey, and North Africa, with its changing meters, irregular rhythms, and non-major/minor modes, would have fit in perfectly with the lingua franca of modernism at the turn of the 20th century. Still, Bártòk’s ability to incorporate these elements into a rich, recognizable, coherent language remains an extraordinary achievement that has since been copied but never equaled.
Each section of the Dance Suite is inspired by a particular national characteristic. The opening movement is Arabic, while the second is Magyar. The third dance combines Hungarian and Romanian elements. Bártòk considered the fourth to be ‘Oriental,’ in the Middle Eastern sense of the word current a century ago. The final dance, which the composer termed ‘primitive,’ without ascribing it any particular national characteristic, leads directly into the cumulative, witches-brew-like Finale, in which quotations from the previous movements can be heard. Also, interspersed between the earlier movements is a Ritornell, or refrain, in an older Hungarian style. This provides the Suite with elements of both continuity and unity, much as did the Promenade sections of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.
The 14 Bagatelles, Op. 6, were completed in 1908, when the composer was twenty-seven. Their considerable artistic merit aside, they leave no doubt that even at a relatively early age, Bártòk was already fluent with the avant-garde languages of his time. He was not merely dabbling with novel devices, however. Rather, in these short sketches, he was researching diversified techniques in quest of an individual language of his own. Such procedures as bi-tonality (Nos. 1 and 7), chordal constructions by superimposed fourths rather than thirds (No. 11), the biting sarcasm of the coming Russian school of Prokofiev and Shostakovich (No. 2), even the presence of a post-Wagnerian language (No. 12) — all made their appearance in the Bagatelles. His major achievement, however, was in his treatment of folk material. Nos. 4 and 5 feature unorthodox harmonizations of authentic Hungarian and Slovakian tunes, but in No. 6, we observe for the first time in Bártòk’s music, an original work incorporating characteristic rhythms, melodic contours, and phrase structuring derived from folk tunes, amalgamated into a highly chromatic, 20th-century vocabulary. As American composer John Downey wrote in the notes to the original LP, “That this element in Bártòk’s hands proved so flexible and adaptable to a contemporary vocabulary was one of the composer’s richest finds. It was Bártòk’s success in adapting this element to his own musical language that was to give his music such distinct character and personal force.”
Although Swiss composer Frank Martin (1890-1974) wrote little for the piano, I have always been grateful for his Huit Préludes of 1948. They exemplify his unique, brooding style, with its characteristic admixture of free twelve-tone techniques, restless melodies that keep on turning in on themselves, and traditional, almost ordinary harmonies, employed in highly original sequences. They were originally composed for the legendary Romanian pianist Dinu Lipatti, whom Martin had met during World War II. It must have been one of Martin’s great disappointments (as well as ours) that Lipatti did not live long enough to perform them.
Although the Preludes can be played individually to great effect, they constitute a single large work. Harmonically, they revolve around a single key (C-sharp minor), and there is even a slight instance of cyclicism, in which the main theme of No. 6 becomes the accompaniment in an episode of No. 8. In his notes to the original LP, musicologist Peter Eliot Stone described the cycle as follows:
“Each of the Eight Preludes sets up a particular pianistic problem. The first, for example, demands extraordinary control of the pedal in order to sustain the long melodic line punctuated by chordal outbursts, often at the opposite end of the keyboard. In the second prelude, allegro tranquillo, a theme with both contour and syncopated rhythm typical of Martin graciously sings out in the right hand, while the left hand moves along regularly in eighth notes. The third prelude has been described as ‘an atonalist’s dream projection of Chopin’s macabre Prelude No. 2, Op. 28.’ Martin would have taken offense with the atonalist tag, but the resemblance is clearly there.
“The fourth prelude, an allegro, prescribes rhythmic rigor in a chromatic setting in which the right hand must expressively play a succession of triads in a singing fashion against a staccato left hand. The fifth prelude, a virtuoso étude, initially unleashes a vivace monophonic line, but as the piece progresses, chords begin to punctuate the line, as do bits of counterpoint. Gradually, the prelude accretes a richer and thicker texture. Rare for Martin are the melodic leaps of the sixth prelude, an andante grazioso; typical of him is the strict canon between the two voices.
“The last two preludes are large-scale works. The seventh begins at a lento pace, exploring the possibilities of left-hand solo writing. Subsequently, the music for left hand is reiterated, but this time with other material for right hand added, and the prelude closes softly and impressionistically as it began. With its union of colour and stern counterpoint, it represents the quintessence of the composer’s style. The closing prelude, a rondo, also bears the unmistakable stamp of Martin, with its main theme composed of a fanfare-like juxtaposition of triads. From start to finish it moves at breakneck speed with a harmonic and rhythmic vigor that borders on violence, and provides a fitting conclusion to the cycle.”
I should mention that my interpretation of No. 7, which clearly is the emotional crux of the set, represents one of very few occasions when I have felt compelled to disregard deliberately a composer’s indication — in this case, the tempo marking of the central section which is considerably faster than mine. Maria Martin, the composer’s widow, while enthusiastic about the overall performance, suggested that Martin himself would have taken exception to my introspective interpretation. I accept that criticism, of course, but nevertheless confess that the passage of close to twenty years has done nothing to alter my own conception of this wondrous work.
program notes by Robert Silverman