The Classical Style II (CD review)

Sonatas by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Susan Merdinger, piano, with Steven Greene, piano. Sheridan Music Studio.

Continuing a succession of outstanding albums, concert pianist Susan Merdinger has released this recording of piano sonatas from the late Classical Period, including works chronologically from Haydn, Mozert, and Beethoven.

In the event you don't know much about Ms. Merdinger, the following information from her Web site might be helpful: "The daughter of a talented pianist/painter, Susan first heard strains of classical piano music before she was even born. Inheriting her Mother's artistic sensibilities and her Father's mathematical mind and enormous hands, playing the piano came very naturally, but it was her passion, hard work, and dedication to music that contributed to her prodigious ability.

"Performing her sold-out solo recital debut at Carnegie Recital Hall at age twenty-four, as a Winner of Artists International, Merdinger has continued to grace the stages of some of the world's best concert halls including Merkin Concert Hall, Diligentia Hall in the Hague, Henry Wood Concert Hall in Scotland's National Orchestra Center, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Sala Felipe Villanueva in Mexico, Ravinia's Bennett Gordon Hall, the Preston Bradley Hall at the Chicago Cultural Center, Fullerton Hall at the Art Institute of Chicago, Logan Center for the Arts, Harris Theater for Music and Dance, and The Chicago Symphony Center.

"Merdinger completed her formal education at Yale University, the Yale School of Music, the Manhattan School of Music, the Westchester Conservatory of Music, the Ecole Normale de Musique in Fontainebleau, France, and the Chautauqua and Norfolk Music Festivals where she held the coveted Patricia Benkman Marsh Scholarship and the Ellen Battel Stoeckel Fellowship. Susan Merdinger is an Artist Faculty of the Summit Music Festival in New York, and Artistic Director and Founder of Sheridan Music Studio--a private music studio, a record label and professional recording studio, and a collaborative arts agency located in Highland Park and Chicago. Merdinger is a Steinway Artist."

And, of course, she's won a slew of medals for her skills. Now, taking on sonatas by the masters, she again demonstrates her prodigous talents in "The Classical Style II," a term that refers both to the era of music to which Haydn, Mozert, and the early Beethoven belonged and to a book by pianist and historian Charles Rosen. Ms. Merdinger defines the "classical style" as that of "refinement, elegance, restraint, formality and tight organization structure." Yes, they're all here on display in Ms. Merdinger's playing.

Susan Merdinger
First up on the program is the Piano Sonata in G major, Hob. XVI:40, written in 1784 by Franz Joseph Haydn. The reader may be excused for the sonata not coming immediately to mind since Haydn wrote about eight hundred chamber pieces. This one is in two short movements, the first a set of variations and the second a spirited Presto. Now, you might think that playing Haydn in the "classical style" might lead to something cold and sterile. Not so with Ms. Merdinger, whose playing brings out the expressive playfulness of the piece.

Next is the Piano Sonata in C major for One Piano, Four Hands, K. 521, written in 1787 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozert. Ms. Merdinger here is accompanied by longtime collaborator Steven Greene. The three-movement sonata's most notable feature, beyond its writing for four hands, is the operatic nature of its closing Allegretto. Here we have a tour de force from the two artists, each perfectly complementing the other. Apparently, Mozart did not favor either of the piano parts over the other, so both pianists are on equal ground and carry out their assignments with exceptional agility and poise. The result is music rich and full in tone and quality.

The final selection is the Piano Sonata in B-flat major, Op. 22, No. 11, written in 1800 by Ludwig van Beethoven. Coincidentally, several weeks before listening to Ms. Merdinger's account of the sonata, I had listened to James Brawn's version, and I couldn't help notice the differences. Ms. Merdinger's interpretation is a tad quicker than Brawn's and a bit more direct. Brawn is just a touch more leisurely. Perhaps Merdinger keeps us more grounded in the Classical Period whereas Brawn points us more toward the emerging Romantic Age. Whatever, the differences do not make one performance better or worse than the other; they're simply a little different from each another.

Beethoven regarded No. 11 as the best of his early piano sonatas, and it has always remained popular with audiences. Listening to great pianists play it with such apparent ease, one cannot always understand what sublime complexity there is in the piece, probably the culmination of Beethoven's creative genius at the time. As always, it was a delight listening to Ms. Merdinger's rendering of the work. She imbues it with a golden glow, a mellow maturity that brings out the music's inherent brilliance and power. I especially enjoyed the poignant lyricism of the slow second movement. Ms. Merdinger never allows the music to sink into mere sentimentality but keeps it on the level of intelligent reflection. Then there's that closing movement where she sums up everything in virtuosic style. Nicely done all the way around.

Engineer Ryan Streber recorded the sonatas at Oktaven Studios, Mount Vernon, New York in December, 2015. Although the piano seems a bit close, it is most realistic in its clarity and impact. It appears pretty much as a piano might appear live, in front of you, in your listening room. There is no harshness, glare, or brightness to the sound, nor is it soft and mushy. It's well detailed, yet smooth and slightly warm, a pleasure to listen to.


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

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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 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 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 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, Goldpoint SA4 “passive preamp,” Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. 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 cell phone. 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.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

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 that 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. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa