Silfra (CD review)

Hilary Hahn, violin; Volker Bertelmann (Hauschka), prepared piano. DG B0016798-02.

I know what you’re asking: What the heck does “Silfra” mean?  And what exactly is a “prepared piano”? First things first. According to Wikipedia, Silfra refers to an area “located in the ├×ingvallavatn Lake in the ├×ingvellir National Park in Iceland.” It’s “a rift that is part of the divergent tectonic boundary between the North American and Eurasian plates. By virtue of its location in the ├×ingvallavatn, Silfra contains clear, cold water that attracts scuba divers drawn to its high visibility and geological importance; divers are literally swimming between continents. The rift claims a shallow depth nearest to the bank, but deepens and widens further out.” The disc’s booklet note says that the place “is preternaturally still, colored in shades of blue and green not found anywhere else. To snorkel there in a snowstorm is to be suspended in an ancient space, feeling tiny and surrounded in all directions by an unending otherworldly landscape.”

Violinist Hilary Hahn and pianist/composer Volker Bertelmann (who sometimes goes by the alias Hauschka when performing on the prepared piano) took their inspiration from the “otherworldliness” of the Silfra region to compose and improvise the twelve selections on the disc. So, what we’ve got here is an experimental album of music recorded the first time the performers played it. The participants tell us “there were no retakes. These are the moments that brought these ideas to life.”  While it may not be high art, it is mostly appealing. 

Oh, and what is a prepared piano? According to my Random House Unabridged Dictionary, it’s “a grand piano that has been altered for some modern compositions by having various objects attached to its strings to change the sound and pitch, and performance on which typically involves playing the keys, plucking the strings, slapping the body of the instrument, and slamming the keyboard lid.” Sounds kind of wild, no? In this case, not quite. The twelve pieces of music Ms. Hahn and Mr. Bertelmann perform sound sometimes hauntingly beautiful, sometimes frustratingly common, yet continuously fascinating.

The first piece on the program they call “Stillness.” One can understand why. It feels as though it’s simply floating out there in the aether. Unfortunately, it’s very brief, under two minutes, and could have gone on longer.

The second piece is just the opposite of the first. “Bounce Bounce” sounds like an Ozark bluegrass hoedown. The artists tell us they intended the music to represent unrest, a rubber ball bouncing back and forth. I found it rather noisy.

“Clock Winder” was by far more to my taste, a series of sounds like the innards of a clock in motion. It has a strangely disquieting yet vibrantly humorous quality that is quite fetching.

And so it goes. Other tracks include “Adash,” with its weird, occasionally eerie stretches of rhythms and vibrations. “Godot” is, as the name implies, all about waiting, with Bertelmann’s prepared piano playing any number of parts in a quiet conversation with Ms. Hahn’s violin. At a little over twelve minutes, it’s the longest work on the disc.

“Krakow” is the most conventional piece on the program, a lovely melody the performers made in advance of the other music. It is the least gimmicky and sweetest music of the bunch in its lightly melancholy way.

I think you get the idea. Most of the music is serenely forgettable, to be sure, yet its misty, atmospheric, impressionistic visions and its varying harmonies and sensations beg one to listen again. Despite its not being great, classic, or enduring music, it might just be something you find yourself returning to a few times more than you initially anticipated. Of course, it helps to have two world-class artists to bring it all off. Otherwise, it would merely be a couple of people appearing to make it up as they go along.

Recorded and mixed at Greenhouse Studio, Iceland, in 2011, the sound is fine for what it is, with Bertelmann’s piano contraption spread widely across the soundstage and Ms. Hahn’s violin a bit more precisely located. Depending on the tune, the sounds of the instruments can be slightly vague or almost startlingly lifelike. But I don’t suppose the performers intended any of their music to be particularly realistic in any traditional sense, so the oddity of the sonics probably contributes to its overall eccentric, experimental feel.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa