Re-Tales #1: George Vatchnadze's Newest Gig

Access to musical information isn't guaranteed, whether it's limited by the resolution of a recording, your audio system, or an oppressive political regime. George Vatchnadze, concert pianist and dealer in high-end audio equipment, has experience with all three.

Vatchnadze's main early influence was his father, at their home in Georgia—the Eurasian country, not the US state—which was then part of the Soviet Union. "My father was a huge music lover, and very knowledgeable, and I grew up with records," he told me in an interview by Skype. "In the Soviet Union, it was very difficult to get musical information because of the Iron Curtain. So, my father would chase American records on the black market (footnote 1) . . . Each record would cost 40 Soviet rubles, whereas the average salary of a Soviet citizen was 120 rubles. It was incredibly hard and expensive, so very few people were doing it. So, I grew up around records that nobody else there had. This is where it all started for me."

Vatchnadze recalls his father taking him to see Aida. "That changed my life," he told me. "I might have been 6 or 7, but I sat through all of it quietly and was absolutely mesmerized, especially when I saw the trumpets on the stage in the second act. I was just blown away."

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Vatchnadze has played piano at famous halls worldwide: the Mariinsky Theater; Covent Garden; Alice Tully Hall; Osaka's The Symphony Hall; and others. He has made noteworthy recordings of the Rachmaninoff Concerto No.2 and Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand with the Tbilisi Symphony Orchestra, and of Prokofiev's Sonatas No.6 and 9. His most recent recording, Kancheli: 33 Miniatures, with cellist Suren Bagratuni, was released in 2019 (footnote 2). Critic Faubion Bowers wrote, in American Record Guide, that Vatchnadze "is a consummate artist" who "can do absolutely anything he wants at the piano." Vatchnadze also teaches piano, at DePaul University's School of Music in Chiaago.

Vatchnadze is both a musician and an audiophile, but he believes that's a rare combination. Why? He says it's because musicians don't need fidelity to process music, the technique and performance, even on bad or vintage recordings. "I don't need a high-end system for that," he told me.

Still, he cares—a lot—about sound, including the sound of his own recordings. "When I make a CD, ... I want to hear it on a high-end system, absolutely," Vatchnadze said. "I would like to hear it on different systems. I recorded Rachmaninoff's second piano concerto back in the '90s, and then it was reissued with compression, which pissed me off beyond belief. They said, 'Oh, [people] can't hear the dynamic range in the car on a car stereo, so we have to compress it.'"

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One of his favorite recordings to audition equipment with isn't his own: It's Horowitz in Moscow, the famous 1986 Moscow Conservatory recital that was broadcast live internationally. Vatchnadze remembers watching it on TV. The performance was captured digitally and released on CD by Deutsche Grammophon, then reissued in 2018 on vinyl, which he says isn't as good (footnote 3). On the CD, "there are parts where the dynamic range is through the roof," but "on the vinyl, it almost sounds like it's going to take out the drivers."

At the beginning of the Horowitz album, "there's a Scarlatti sonata," Vatchnadze told me in our interview. "I test all my systems with just that sonata, and if it doesn't sound right, I'm not interested, because I know how that hall sounds. I know how Horowitz's piano sounds because I played it once. I am a Steinway artist, and I tried it once when he was touring. He traveled with his piano, and they asked me to come in and play it. So that recording is sort of a benchmark for me. And I think that live recordings should be benchmarks, because if they don't transport you into the recording space, or bring that into your house—if that's not happening, then I'm not interested."

The conveyance of musical information influences the choice of equipment he carries at his dealership. Mostly he seeks accuracy, or realism, but the emotions it provokes must also resemble what you can experience at a live event. "It will never be the same, but it can get pretty darned close," he told me. What equipment have those criteria led him to? The webpage for his dealership lists 27 brands, from Acoustic Signature to Zanden (footnote 4).

Vatchnadze founded Kyomi Audio in 2007, in Michigan. In 2011, he and his wife—Kyomi, also a concert pianist—moved to Chicago, both taking positions at DePaul University. (Kyomi is not involved in the business that bears her name except that she participates in most listening tests and product evaluations.)

Before the pandemic hit, Kyomi Audio had just moved into a new brick-and-mortar store, in Addison, a western suburb of Chicago. The grand opening celebration, scheduled for this spring, was delayed. The store is open by appointment with pandemic precautions in place.

Vatchnadze says his goal is to maintain the hobby feel in his business. "Yeah, the joy and the passion for it. I haven't lost it, and I'm not planning on doing that."


Footnote 1: One wonders if he ever bought records from Alex Halberstadt's father; see this month's My Back Pages.

Footnote 2: Several of his recordings are available at prestomusic.com.

Footnote 3: Horowitz in Moscow was initially issued on vinyl in Germany, and that gatefold LP sold so well that it is still common and affordable even in the US.—Editor

Footnote 4: See kyomiaudio.com/brands.html.

COMMENTS
avanti1960's picture

On your new recording! We missed you at AXPONA this year (obvious reasons).
Looking forward to visiting your new store!
Peace and all the best,

Tony, the "burbs"

Herb Reichert's picture

George Vatchnadze is a cool dude

I like stories like this and . . .

I use that Horowitz in Moscow recording as a reviewing tool - everything about it is good

hr

John Atkinson's picture
Herb Reichert wrote:
George Vatchnadze is a cool dude

Yes indeed, I recorded George playing Scarlatti and Ravel in 2009 as part of a live-vs-recorded event that was organized by Philip O'Hanlon of On A Higher Note - see www.stereophile.com/content/recording-angel. I'll ask George if he would mind me posting the recordings to SoundCloud.

John Atkinson
Technical Editor, Stereophile

John Atkinson's picture
George gave me permission to post to SoundCloud my recordings of him performing two Scarlatti Sonatas, K466 & K133, and "Scarbo" from Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit: see soundcloud.com/user-739259993/sets/george-vatchnadze. Thank you George. Enjoy everyone.

John Atkinson
Technical Editor, Stereophile

JulieAudiophile's picture

Thanks, Herb! It was a fun one to write.

Anton's picture

".....musicians don't need fidelity to process music, the technique and performance, even on bad or vintage recordings. "I don't need a high-end system for that."

And that, folks, is what sets us audiophiles apart from actual music lovers.

(Keep in mind, I'm in the same boat as y'all....I admit to being an audiophile.)

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Musicians may not "need" fidelity to process music, but that doesn't mean that they don't want and appreciate its ability to increase their enjoyment as music lovers.

Anton's picture

I don't "need" to wear the plushie suit and stilettos to process a certain something experience, but it doesn't mean I don't appreciate their ability to increase my enjoyment.

;-D

And it's OK, we love our gear!

Audiophiles and wine geeks love to pre-qualify their experiences as "being all about better enjoyment of music," or "it's all about friends and the companionship of enjoying wine"....and then it devolves into lists of gear, wine bottles, pressings, stemware, little audio feet, racks, how the experience could be better, offering critiques of a beautiful piece of music or bottle of wine. To be an audiophile is to find flaw, when you think about it. Actual music lovers just find a lot fewer flaws standing in the way.

Hmmmm, come to think of it....audiophiles and oenophiles even like to talk using the same terms, too! Pressings, racks, body, balance, full bodied, hot, cool, open, smooth, texture, structure, weight...both groups like to show how discerning their palates are.

Who loves music more: a person who can dance and bask to the music in the kitchen while listening to a table top all-in-one or while driving along the freeway, or a person who requires a gear shrine to appreciate the full spirituality of part 15 of Bach's Brandenburgs?

The non-audiophiles have it all over us, Jason...they are listening to music while we serve our religion of gear.

Like I said, I am similarly affected, I like playing music on my shrine to the materialism of audio. For an audiophile, the gear is able to insinuate itself between us and the music. Audio gear is the Catholic Church of music: it stands as the middle-man between the congregant and the divine.

Like I said, I am fine with it, but we should be more honest about it as a group.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Post a photo of you in those stilettos.

rschryer's picture

Please don't, Anton. :-)

Btw, love this sentence: "To be an audiophile is to find flaw, when you think about it."

It kind of is. If it wasn't for flaws, what would be the point of upgrading?

Ortofan's picture

... be able to brag to your fellow audiophiles about the latest Stereophile 'Class A' rated component that you acquired and the life-changing improvement it has made to your system.

Anton's picture

Joke!

I'm much more of a 'sensible heels' kinda guy.

;-D

Jack L's picture

Hi

Too true!

My elder son acquired my city's Royal Conservatory of Music grade ten Classical Piano theory & practice certification with first class honour when he was 18 before entering university.

Yet he never owns any HiFi. He enjoys music from his tiny laptop computer speakers on his bedroom desk next to his upright Yamaha piano & his iPhone earbud music during transit.

Yet he randomly sit down by my side to enjoy classical music with me
in my dedicated 700sq.ft soundroom in my basement. Mind you, he is a "perfect pitch" guy !

Jack L

JulieAudiophile's picture

George and I had a great conversation. We also talked about gear and music. I'd love to share more of it somehow. Maybe another time.

JulieAudiophile's picture

For me, audio gear takes the musical enjoyment possibilities to a higher level. And sometimes that means flaws are also revealed. I also want gear around that is pleasing to interact with in form, function, feel, AND sound. Whatever heightens your enjoyment of music, wine, etc., go for it!

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