French Fantasy (CD review)

Music of Saint-Saens, Faure, and Ravel for duo pianists. Susan Merdinger and Steven Greene, piano. Sheridan Music Studio.

Steinway artist Susan Merdinger has made a number of fine albums, and while I've liked every one of them, I seem to like each succeeding album even better than the previous one. The present album, French Fantasy, I positively love, with Ms. Merdinger's husband, pianist Steven Greene, joining her to play piano four-hands music of French composers Saint-Saens, Faure, and Ravel.

As Ms. Merdinger and Mr. Greene are probably not yet household names, perhaps a little background from Ms. Merdinger's Web site is in order: "Among her many honors, Merdinger is a First Prize Winner of the 2012 Bradshaw and Buono International Piano Competition, and a winner of 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," and the 2009 Masterplayers International Music Competition. In 2014, Ms. Merdinger won the Global Music Awards Silver and Bronze Medals for her CD's Carnival and Soiree. She is a laureate of the prestigious Leeds International Piano Competition, Montreal International Concours de Musique, and William Kappell International Piano Competition. Additionally, as the Merdinger-Greene Duo Piano Team with her husband Steven Greene, she won First Prize in the 2013 International Music Competition of France, First Prize in the Westchester Conservatory Chamber Music Competition, and was a Semi-Finalist in the Murray Dranoff International Two Piano Competition."

Ms. Merdinger is currently on the faculty at the Summit Music Festival in New York and is the Artistic Director of the Sheridan Music Studio. What's more, she has been performing with Mr. Greene since they met as graduate students at the Yale School of Music in 1984, and they regularly perform in concert together on one and two pianos.

So, on to the music. The first item they play on the program is The Carnival of the Animals by composer, organist, conductor, and pianist Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921). It's a fourteen-movement suite that the composer wrote in 1886 originally for two pianos and nine or ten other instruments, although we usually hear it these days played by a full orchestra. Nevertheless, hearing Ms. Merdinger and Mr. Greene playing it together on one piano makes a splendid argument for the smaller arrangement.

Because the movements are little tone poems describing various animals, it gives Merdinger and Greene a chance to show off their command of nuance and shading, which they display with consummate skill. Surprisingly, perhaps, Saint-Saens was at first reluctant to publish his suite, thinking it was perhaps too lightweight and unsophisticated. Calmer heads prevailed, and the composer relented. The way Merdinger and Greene approach the music, you can see why the public has loved it so much, and the duo bring out all the color and fun of the pieces. I especially liked "The Kangaroo" and "Aquarium," and the rollicking "Finale." And who doesn't like "The Swan"?

Susan Merdinger
Ms. Merdinger plays the lead piano part (primo piano) and Mr. Greene the accompaniment, so to speak. Together, they produce performances of the utmost confidence and beauty, often sounding like a whole of bank of pianos blazing away, other times creating a mood of whispered quiet. Their work sounds polished and pure and, most of all, touching. Although we hear no overt sentimentalism in their playing, we do find a good deal of heart in it.

Next, in keeping with the gentle, fairy-tale spirit of the album, we get the Dolly Suite, Op. 56, written by composer, organist, and teacher Gabriel Faure (1845-1924) between 1893 and 1896 specifically for piano four hands, although the French conductor and composer Henri Rabaud scored it for full orchestra in 1906. However, the original four-hands arrangement heard here is probably the more-charming choice. Faure wrote the music for Dolly, the daughter of his mistress, and each little movement pictures a person, thing, or event in Dolly's life. Most it is friendly and attractive, starting with one of the loveliest lullabies you'll hear, performed with strong feeling and affection by Merdinger and Greene. Sweet and tender are the keynotes of their rendition.

Lastly, we hear the Mother Goose Suite by French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), which he wrote as a piano four-hands duet in 1910. He orchestrated the work in 1911 and expanded it to a ballet in 1912, but, again, the original piano version seems the most delightful of all. Ravel based his suite on fairly well-known fairy tales, and Merdinger and Greene help them come alive in vivid, characterful style. The playing, like the music, is vaguely nostalgic, mostly atmospheric, and always magical. The suite makes a fitting conclusion to a program that is consistently enchanting.

Engineer Edward Ingold recorded the music for Sheridan Music Studio, Highland Park, Illinois in 2014. The sound he captured is close enough to provide good detail yet not so close that it appears hard, clangy, or bright. He has picked up a modest degree of room resonance to make the piano seem entirely natural, too: dynamic, to be sure, but smooth, round, and warm. This may not be as analytical a piano sound as some recordings you'll find, but it is as realistic as any you'll hear.


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 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.

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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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa