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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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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.

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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa