Four Centuries (CD review)

Susan Merdinger, piano; David Yonan, violin. Sheridan Music Studio.

Among my favorite pianists is Steinway artist Susan Merdinger. On the present album, Four Centuries, she teams up with violinist David Yonan for a program of music that takes us from the 1700's to the present. They do pieces by Mozart, Schumann, Bloch, and Levinson, and they do them exceptionally well. In fact, Ms. Merdinger and Mr. Yonan make some exceedingly beautiful music together.

The juxtaposition of old and new music works well and makes for some fascinating listening. What's more, the duo of Merdinger and Yonan brings with it a much-appreciated warmth and enthusiasm. While both performers are capable of and often display virtuosic playing, neither of them tries to get too fancy or upstage the other. They work as one player instead of two, the results quite satisfying.

The first work on the agenda is the Sonata No. 13 for Piano and Violin in B-flat major, K. 454 by Austrian composer and pianist Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791). Written in 1784, Mozart intended it as a piece he would play together with violin virtuoso Regina Strinasacci at a concert in Vienna. With Merdinger and Yonan, the Mozart is both lively and relaxed as the occasion demands. They give the outer movements the spark they need, and they apply a sweet, gentle touch to the Andante.

The next work is the Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 1 in A minor, Op. 105 by German composer Robert Schumann (1810-1856). He wrote it late in life, 1851, and premiered it in 1852 with Ferdinand David on violin and the composer's wife Clara on piano. In contrast to the high good spirits of the Mozart, the Schumann piece is more solemn, especially the first movement. The second movement sounds richly melodic, particularly as Merdinger and Yonan handle it. Then we get a somewhat agitated final movement, in which the performers emphasize the distress and conflict to passionate effect.

Susan Merdinger
After that we hear a piece from the twentieth century, the Suite Hebraique for Violin and Piano by Swiss-born composer Ernest Bloch (1880-1959). Bloch wrote the music in 1950 for the Covenant Club of Chicago, which had just sponsored a festival of his music. Merdinger and Yonan bring out Bloch's clearly though not always obvious Hebraic influences. The violin was not Bloch's first choice for the work; originally, he wrote it for cello, a more somber instrument, and later he adapted it for violin. Still, it works out well for Yonan's violin, which supplies a demonstrative voice to the proceedings.

The final work on the album is Elegy: Crossing the Bridge, for Violin and Piano, written in 2011 by Russian-born composer Ilya Levinson (b. 1958) and dedicated to David Yonan, who performed its world debut. Merdinger and Yonan's rendering of the piece is its official world-premiere recording. Levinson's work is the shortest on the disc at a single movement of about nine minutes. As with so much modern music, it has multiple meanings, the business of "crossing the bridge" referring to the actual playing technique as well as "getting in touch with the reality outside of commonly known human senses," as Lawrence Block writes in the booklet notes. Fair enough, and certainly it presents the listener with a variety of mood changes from "elegiac to tragic" and on to the other side of the bridge and a glimpse of "the Great Beyond." So, it's not only an interesting piece of music, it's rather ambitious as well. Whatever, Yonan and Merdinger infuse it with a rich, intense, sinuous longing that is quite moving.

Recording and mastering engineer James Auwarter and producer Susan Merdinger made the album at the Anne and Howard Gottlieb Hall at the Merit School of Music, Chicago, Illinois in July 2015. Played back at a realistic level, the disc offers among the best sound you'll find in any solo or duet album. The relative positioning of the violin and piano seems as perfect as it can be, with a lifelike balance in both tone and space. Clarity is outstanding, too, without being forward, bright, or brittle. The instruments simply sound natural, with a hint of room ambience to give them an even more accurate presence. It's quite a beautiful disc to hear, actually.

Among the places you can find the album is Ms. Merdinger's 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