Pianissimo! (CD review)

The Chicago Debut Concert. Pianists Svetlana Belsky, Elena Doubovitskaya, Irina Feoktistova, and Susan Merdinger. Sheridan Music Studio.

Yes, Pianissimo in music refers to a passage or movement played softly or very softly. But Pianissimo! also refers to an ensemble of four very talented pianists. As described in the disc's accompanying booklet, "Pianissimo! was first formed in December 2014, and recently appeared in several venues for "Make Music Chicago." As soloists and duo pianists, the four women have appeared in major concert halls and on TV and radio around the world, recorded a number of CD's, "and won numerous awards and honors, as well as accolades and rave reviews from major publications for their outstanding performances and programming."

The four members of Pianissimo! consist of Dr. Svetlana Beisky, critically acclaimed as "a passionate pianist and scholar," performing extensively in Europe, Asia, and the U.S. Next is Dr. Elena Doubovitskaya, "a native of Russia who established herself as a solo and collaborative musician after moving to the US in 1998." In addition, there is Irina Feoktistova, "a graduate of the Petersburg Conservatoire, Russia," who has performed in the major halls of Russia, Europe, and the United States. And Susan Merdinger, a Steinway Artist who has been hailed as "tender and impassioned" (Glasgow Herald) and "breathtaking" (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung).

On the current album they present their Chicago debut concert, which includes selections for piano two hands, piano four hands, two pianos four hands, two pianos eight hands, and four pianos, three of the pieces being world-premiere performances. The track list follows:

  1. Beethoven: Egmont Overture (arr. T. Herbert)
  2. Rimsky-Korsakov: Fantasy on Scheherazade (arr. M. Zelenaia; world premiere)
  3. Saint-Saens: Danse Macabre
  4. Tchaikovsky: Capriccio Italienne (arr. A. Ton/S. Belsky)
  5. Gershwin: Fantasy on "The Man I Love" (arr. A. Tsafsman)
  6. Lutoslawski: Variations on a Theme by Paganini
  7. James Stone: Rip Current
  8. Ilya Levinson: Fireball (world premiere)
  9. Ilya Levinson: Broadway Medley for Classical Pianists (world premiere)

The opening overture from Beethoven shows off what can happen with eight hands at two pianos, and it's a rich and rewarding experience. The performers are brilliant in their own right, each a virtuoso, but together they are unmatched, and the playing produces an enriching few minutes.

The next item, the Rimsky-Korsakov fantasy, displays the talents of all four players on four pianos, making the number that much plusher and more opulent in sound and content, and making for a touching and exciting interpretation. And so it goes through the familiar repertoire of names like Beethoven, Saint-Saens, Tchaikovsky, Gershwin, and Rachmaninov in fantasies, variations, and single numbers. (The Danse Macabre for two pianos, eight hands, is particularly thrilling.)

Then there are the two newer selections from the Russian-born composer Ilya Levinson, selections that receive world-premiere performances. They have a more modern sensibility, of course, yet they take us back to an earlier period of twentieth-century American music, too, especially the Broadway medley arranged for four pianos. It pairs up favorite Broadway show tunes with seamless transitions to produce a rollicking good time. The four skilled pianists will make one forget all about Broadway pit orchestras in their lush and luxurious readings.

I should add, as well, that the disc offers a healthy seventy-six minutes of playing time, making the concert not only entertaining but also good value for the dollar.

Engineer Edward Ingold recorded the concert live at the Merit School of Music, Anne and Howard Gottlieb Hall in September 2015. Would I rather have heard Pianissimo recorded in a studio than live? Of course, it would no doubt have sounded even better without the constraints of a live audience present. Nevertheless, we have what we have, and I'm sure Pianissimo fans will enjoy the experience of the live moment. Besides, the wide dynamics of the presentations help to make up for any minor live deficiencies. For example, while there could be more presence, more high-end sheen, more brilliance, and more hall ambience on offer, the intensity of the music making always shines through and lights up the room.

Still, I really could have done without the applause at the end of each selection.


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

Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

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 Jon 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 for 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 Nehring, Editor and Contributor

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to both its equipment and recordings 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 they 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 Marantz CD 6007 and Onkyo CD 7030 CD players, NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I occasionally do some listening through pair of Sennheiser 560S headphones. I miss the excellent ELS Studio sound system in our 2016 Acura RDX (now my wife's daily driver) on which I had ripped more than a hundred favorite CDs to the hard drive, so now when driving my 2022 Accord EX-L Hybrid I stream music from my phone through its adequate but not outstanding factory system. 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 tolerably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom II 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.

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Most recently I’ve moved to my “ultimate system” consisting of a BlueSound Node streamer, an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a CD transport, Legacy Wavelet II DAC/preamp/crossover, dual Legacy PowerBloc2 amps, and Legacy Signature SE speakers (biamped), all connected with decently made, no-frills cables. With the arrival of CD and higher resolution streaming, that is now the source for most of my listening.

Ryan Ross, Contributor

I started listening to and studying classical music in earnest nearly three decades ago. This interest grew naturally out of my training as a pianist. I am now a musicologist by profession, specializing in British and other symphonic music of the 19th and 20th centuries. My scholarly work has been published in major music journals, as well as in other outlets. Current research focuses include twentieth-century symphonic historiography, and the music of Jean Sibelius, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Malcolm Arnold.

I am honored to contribute writings to Classical Candor. In an age where the classical recording industry is being subjected to such profound pressures and changes, it is more important than ever for those of us steeped in this cultural tradition to continue to foster its love and exposure. I hope that my readers can find value, no matter how modest, in what I offer here.

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

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@gmail.com

Readers with impolite, discourteous, bitchy, whining, complaining, nasty, mean-spirited, unhelpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@recycle.bin.

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa