Soiree: Music of Schubert, Brahms, Debussy, and Liszt (CD review)

Susan Merdinger, piano. Sheridan Music Studio.

As you may know, pianist Susan Merdinger is a Steinway Artist, receiving 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. Having formerly taught at Yale University, Westchester Day School, and the New Music School of Chicago, Ms. Merdinger is currently on the faculties of Summit Music Festival in New York, Burgos International Music Festival in Spain, and the Fine Arts Music Society Festival in Indiana. She is also Artistic Director of the Sheridan Music Studio in Highland Park, Illinois, a private music studio and record label. A recipient of numerous scholarships and awards, Ms. Merdinger has been performing internationally to great acclaim for several decades. On the present album, Soiree, she performs various selections from Schubert, Brahms, Debussy, and Liszt.

The first item Ms. Merdinger plays on the program is the Sonata in B major, D.575 by that most felicitous of composers, Austrian Franz Schubert (1797–1828). Although Schubert wrote it early on, in 1817, the piece didn't see publication until after his death. It's a good example of his forward-looking style, a relatively brief, happy, lyrical work, slightly predating the full blooming of the nineteenth-century Romantic movement. Although it took a while for audiences finally to hear Schubert's music, we can count it worthwhile. In this early piece there are the clear indications of lyricism, melody, harmony, and ultimate elegance that marked all of the composer's work. Ms. Merdinger plays it wonderfully well, gracing every note with care, never hurrying yet never lagging, either; never seriously clinical yet never sentimentalizing. The music has weight and substance through thoughtful nuance and obvious affection. This stands out most clearly in the Andante section, which could easily stand on its own.

Next, we have two rhapsodies by German composer Johannes Brahms (1833-1897): the Rhapsody in B minor and the Rhapsody in G minor, Nos. 1 and 2, Op. 79, written in 1879. Ms. Merdinger says in a booklet note that Brahms's music "represents a personal outpouring of religious faith, love, joy, contemplation, sadness and melancholic grief." Certainly, Ms. Merdinger's performances of the Rhapsodies bring out these qualities, with an emphasis perhaps on the combination of joy and melancholy in these extravagantly complex, richly drawn pieces.

After that, we find three works by French composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918): Pagodes, La Soiree dans Grenada ("Evening in Grenada"), and Jardins sous la Pluie ("Gardens in the Rain"). In Pagodes, Debussy strove to give the impression of an exotic location, in this case through Javanese gamelan music and a suggestion of the five-tone scale of Javanese music. La Soiree captures another exotic location, using the rhythms of the Caribbean. Jardins is fairly self-explanatory, Debussy capturing the various sounds of raindrops during a storm and its aftermath. Here, Ms. Merdinger excels in reproducing the haunting passages Debussy so carefully engineered. The composer's idea is for the listener not only to see in the mind's the images he's depicting but, more important, to feel them through the atmosphere he's creating. That's where the pianist does her job most effectively, building up the moods of the music. In La Soiree, especially, she seems to be playing two separate pianos at once, her tones are so luxuriant.

Ms. Merdinger concludes the album with two works by Hungarian composer and pianist Franz Liszt (1811-1886): the Concert Paraphrase on Verdi's "Rigoletto" and the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12 in C-sharp minor. In these final Liszt numbers, Ms. Merdinger again demonstrates her ability to convey both raw power and emotion with subtlety and refinement. In the Verdi paraphrase we actually hear the voices of the opera, and in the Rhapsody we experience the full impact of the folk-like tunes and dances as the pianist signs off in a blaze of glory.

Ms. Merdinger is a pianist who would rather show than tell you things with her piano playing, so expect an abundantly diverse display of passion, pleasure, reflection, and beauty from her performances.

Recording engineers Tim Martyn and David Schoenberg and recording engineer, editor, and mastering engineer Ed Ingold made the recording in 2014 for Sheridan Music Studio. The piano rings out with clarity and authority. There is a mild resonance that reinforces the notion that the piano is in the room with you. Yet the modest reflections do nothing to interfere with the transparency of the piano sound. Strong dynamic contrasts and a generous decay time also help to make the recording as lifelike as possible. The sound has the kind of reach-out-and-touch-it quality I'm sure we'd all like to hear from every recording.

Ms. Merdinger has made the album available as a digital download and on a physical disc at various locations, including her own Web site:


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

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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 of The $ensible Sound magazine 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