Schumann: Carnival (CD review)

Also, Faschingsschwank aus Wein. Susan Merdinger, piano. Sheridan Music Studio 8-84501-93323-0.

What is a Steinway Artist? As the folks at Steinway put it, “Without them, a Steinway piano is silent. But together, the artist and piano create music--such beautiful music that most professional pianists choose to perform only on Steinway pianos. For decades Steinway & Sons has cultivated special relationships with pianists from every genre. From classical pianists like Lang Lang, to jazz stars like Diana Krall, to pop icons like Billy Joel, to ‘immortals’ like Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Arthur Rubinstein--more than 1,600 artists make the Steinway their own.” Pianist Susan Merdinger is a Steinway Artist.

Ms. Merdinger received her formal education at Yale University, the Yale School of Music, the Manhattan School of Music, the Westchester Conservatory of Music, and the Ecole Normale de Musique, Fontainebleau, France, and is a recipient of numerous scholarships and awards. Among other things, Ms. Merdinger has won the 1986 Artists International Young Musicians Competition, the 1990 Artists International Alumni Winners Prize, the 1990 Dewar’s Young Artists Award in Music, the 2011 IBLA Grand Prize Competition “Special Liszt Award,” the 2009 Masterplayers International Music Competition, the 2012 Bradshaw and Buono International Piano Competition, and the 2013 International Music Competition of France.

What’s more, she is a laureate of the prestigious Leeds International Piano Competition, Montreal International Concours de Musique, and William Kappell International Piano Competition. Additionally, as one part of the Merdinger-Greene Duo Piano Team with her husband Steven Greene, she won First Prize in the 2013 International Music Competition of France and First Prize in the Westchester Conservatory Chamber Music Competition and was a Semi-Finalist in the Murray Dranoff International Two Piano Competition.

Although Ms. Merdinger’s name may not be as familiar to most listeners as some other concert pianists in the field, she has been performing internationally to great acclaim for several decades. On the present album she tackles Robert Schumann’s Carnival and does so with the expected ease of a Steinway Artist, as a thorough and gifted professional.

In Carnaval (“Carnival”), subtitled Little Scenes on Four Notes, Op. 9 (1834-35) German composer Robert Schumann (1810-1856) wrote a series of brief piano pieces portraying various revelers at a masked ball during Carnaval, a festival held immediately before Lent in largely Catholic countries. In these short musical tone poems the composer represented himself, his friends, and his associates, as well as a few offhand characters from Italian comedy. A returning theme unites the twenty-one piano pieces, which contain, according to Schumann, coded puzzles of four notes each. He further suggested that "deciphering my masked ball will be a real game for you."

We’ll let the puzzles be and concentrate on the music, which Ms. Merdinger plays with consummate skill, despite the great technical difficulty in performing it. (In Schumann’s own day, few pianists attempted the piece, and Chopin, who took a dim view of Schumann’s work in general, apparently didn’t even consider it music.) Anyway, I would now have to count Ms. Merdinger’s account of Carnaval among the outstanding recordings of the score, recordings that include in my experience those of Alicia De Larrocha, Cecile Licad, Mitsuko Uchida, Nelson Freire, Claudio Arrau, and a few others I’ve probably forgot. Unlike some of these pianists, though, what characterizes Ms. Merdinger’s interpretations is her razor-sharp delineations of each piece. Yes, of course, she is sweet and mellifluous and flowing and vibrant and all the rest when necessary, and, no, she’s not quite as patrician as Arrau or as penetrating as De Larrocha, yet she is able to depict each of the people in Schumann’s collection with a clarity and precision that is almost surgical. Not that she is distant or overly analytical, however; her readings are warm and colorful, drawing fully on Schumann’s imaginative writing.

Ms. Merdinger's playing is from the outset radiant, energetic, and aesthetically poised. When she needs to apply bravura showmanship, she's ready; when she needs a delicate touch, she's there; when she needs charisma or charm or poignancy, she's on top of the game. These portrayals of Schumann's characters and events sound beautiful, precise, and exciting. The big moments come through with enthusiasm and the soft moments are heartfelt. I loved every minute of her presentation.

Accompanying Carnaval is Schumann's Faschingsschwank aus Wein ("Carnival Scenes from Vienna"), Op. 26 (1839), subtitled Phantasiebilder ("Fantasy Images"). Like its more-popular sibling, it, too, paints a series of pianistic images, although fewer of them. As in Carnaval, Ms. Merdinger delivers them in a concise, creative, expressive, utterly pleasing manner.

Engineer Mary Mazurek and editor Mark Travis recorded Carnival in 2011 at WFMT Studio, Chicago, Illinois and Faschingsschwank aus Wien in 2012 at Nicholas Hall, Music Institute of Chicago, Evanston, Illinois. The piano sound in both works is dynamic and fairly close, with excellent body, clarity, and definition, perhaps a tad softer in the Music Institute location. There is enough natural resonance in each room to provide a realistic presence yet not so much as to veil detail. It's among the more-appealing piano sounds I've heard; very lifelike.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

JJP

2 comments:

  1. As long as there is music like this, there is hope for the World
    Mel

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you, Mel! And many thanks to you, John!
      Susan Merdinger

      Delete

John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

I've been listening to classical music most of my life, starting with the classical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first classical 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 using a pair of VMPS RM40s. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (moviemet.com, formerly DVDTOWN) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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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.

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