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.
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: http://www.susanmerdingerpianist.com/store
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here: