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“Susan Merdinger – Soiree” = SCHUBERT: Sonata in B Major; BRAHMS: Two Rhapsodies; DEBUSSY: Estampes; LISZT: Concert Paraphrase on Verdi’s “Rigoletto”; Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12 – Susan Merdinger, piano – Sheridan Music

Susan Merdinger – Soiree = SCHUBERT: Sonata in B Major, D. 575; BRAHMS: Two Rhapsodies, Op. 79; DEBUSSY: Estampes; LISZT: Concert Paraphrase on Verdi’s “Rigoletto”; Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12 in C-sharp Minor – Susan Merdinger, piano – Sheridan Music Studio, 65:52 [www.susanmerdinger.com] ****:

Susan Merdinger, a pupil of a host of stellar luminaries of the keyboard – Claude Frank, Seymour Lipkin, Constance Keene, and Gaby Casadesus, to name a few – assembles a colorful program to disseminate her various virtues at the piano. Merdinger emerges as a natural exponent of the repertory she champions, opening with Schubert’s 1817 Sonata in B Major, a piece noted for its harmonic audacities, especially given the relative youth of its twenty-year-old creator. The Allegro ma non tanto exploits an unusual, “improvisatory” scalar group that embraces B Major, G Major, E Major and F-sharp Major.  The Andante, emotionally, seems to stray even more far afield, with a middle section and passing dissonances that testify to Schubert’s personal sturm und drang. The Allegretto and Trio revert to a more “conventional” lifestyle, but just barely.  The glittery scherzo exploits angular accents and agogics that keep an otherwise standard contredanse from taking itself for granted. Merdinger’s Steinway’s upper registers enjoy a limpid purity of sound, courtesy of engineer Tim Martyn. A crisp militancy invests the Allegro giusto, much of which plays like a spirited Moment musical or a solo version of a four-hand, gentle march in canon.

The transition to the two Brahms Rhapsodies, Op. 79 (1879) occurs smoothly enough, with the B Minor’s alternating moods – rather like Schumann’s twin personae – martial and poetically melancholy. Merdinger takes the middle section a bit too quickly for my taste, which absorbed this piece via both Gieseking and Rubinstein. Merdinger does communicate the boldly grand proportion of the music with requisite power. The G Minor shows off Merdinger’s eighth note triplets to advantage and her capacity for potent serpentine bass tones.  The music delves into the composer’s deep well of sequential patterns, but Merdinger avoids color monotony. We infer from her reading that the large, virtuoso variations in Brahms loom in her near horizon.

The 1903 Estampes of Claude Debussy extend Merdinger’s color palette of Asia and Spain, and we recall that the composer boasted that he had conceived his three lacquers for “an instrument without hammers.” Gamelan sonorities suffuse the B Major Pagodes, rife with bells and the musical equivalent of liquid porcelain.  The issues of balance and texture here seem to have found in Merdinger their natural resolution, though her keyboard patina remains hard. The beguiling habanera that defines the ultimate evocation of Spain, La Soiree dans Grenada, ripples with electric sensuality. Both nocturne and watercolor, the music remains thoroughly Iberian without any direct quote from folk materials. A bright E Major resonates through the Jardins sous la Pluie, here provided a decidedly piquant touch from Merdinger in her application of rapid staccatos and rising singing line, based on two children’s songs that haunt Debussy at several moments in his creative output.

Liszt’s paraphrase upon the aria Bella figlia dell’amore from the final act of Verdi’s gothic opera Rigoletto combines the conflicted emotions of the quartet – despair, flirtatiousness, frustrated ambition, and jealousy –  in pearly strings of runs and a repeated, cantilena aria festooned with trills. Delicacy and virility of execution combine in Merdinger’s athletic rendition, much in the tradition we know from the likes of Jorge Bolet.  The big Twelfth Hungarian Rhapsody has had its feminine champions in the persons of Gina Bachauer and Annie Fischer.  Merdinger rhetorically dallies with the slow, lassu section to extract its martial and whimsical series of variations on the opening progression. The music-box filigree quite captivates, though none has ever surpassed Mischa Levitzky in this episode. Merdinger’s grand line then having transitioned to the friss section, she indulges in all those color elements that make her piano an authentic vehicle for Liszt’s national, verbunkos style.

—Gary Lemco

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