SUSAN MERDINGER SOIRÉE • Susan Merdinger (pn) • SHERIDAN MUSIC STUDIO no catalog number (65:52)
SCHUBERT Sonata in B. BRAHMS Rhapsodies Nos. 1 & 2, op. 79. DEBUSSY Estampes. LISZT Concert Paraphrase on Verdi’s Rigoletto. Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12
At the time I interviewed Susan Merdinger for the 37:4 issue of the magazine, her most recent album, recorded between 2011 and 2012, was devoted to two major works by Schumann, Carnaval and Faschingsschwank aus Wien. Since then, Susan has recorded this brand-new disc of Romantic piano evergreens on her own registered Sheridan Music Studio label.
The program, beginning with one of Schubert’s earliest sonatas, takes us through Brahms’s later middle period with his two dramatic and passionate op. 79 Rhapsodies, through one of Liszt’s dazzling opera paraphrases and technically brilliant Hungarian Rhapsodies, and to the dawning of the 20th century with Debussy’s exotic Estampes.
Schubert completed his B-Major Sonata, D 575, in 1817, his first work in the form to be in four movements. In a 1974 article in the Musical Quarterly, LX (4), musicologist Daniel Coren enigmatically states that “the first movement of this sonata is the only such movement in Schubert’s sonatas where the recapitulation literally transcribes the exposition.” I’m following the score along with Susan’s playing of it, and frankly, to give Coren the benefit of the doubt, I’ll just say that he didn’t express clearly what he actually meant to say.
Here’s the lowdown on what Schubert pulls off in the first movement of this piano sonata. The second theme of the exposition begins at bar 31, but instead of it being in the expected dominant of B Major, which would be F♯ Major, it’s in E Major, the subdominant. That sets up Schubert’s gambit. After several measures of 16th-note noodling, the exposition comes to a close in bar 60, and the development takes off in bar 61. For the next 28 measures, Schubert subjects his main thematic motive to a game of “lords-a-leaping,” as the right and left hands exchange wide-spaced jumps from the high treble to the low bass, finally smoothing out under a sequence of running triplets. The recapitulation begins with the upbeat to bar 90, but lo and behold, instead of returning to home base, B Major, the recap begins a fifth lower, in E Major, the same key in which the second theme appeared in the exposition. Theoretically, this sleight of hand should allow Schubert to shift the tonic-to-dominant modulation, which normally occurs between the first and second themes in the exposition, to the recapitulation, thus fulfilling the formal requirement for the movement to end in the tonic key in which it began. (Incidentally, Schubert carried out this formal shift a year earlier in his Fifth Symphony. The recap begins a fifth lower than it should, in E♭ instead of B♭, allowing for a real instead of a false modulation to take place to B♭ for the second theme.)
But alas, that’s not what Schubert does in this sonata, and I believe that’s what Coren meant by saying the recapitulation literally transcribes the exposition; for instead of modulating from E Major to B Major for the second theme, Schubert carries out the same modulation to the subdominant that he did in the exposition, thus causing the second theme to end up in A Major at bar 119. Eventually, he does find his way back to B Major to conclude the movement, but this is yet another example of just how precocious Schubert was when it came to manipulating harmonic function to engineer procedural changes in formal structure.
I would gently chide Susan for not observing the exposition repeat, which isn’t very long—it would have added just over two minutes to her performance—and which, when taken, serves to call attention to the game that’s afoot. Otherwise, hers is a reading that’s highly alert to the details of the written score and mindful of both the music’s spirit and the style and practice of its period. Her dotted eighth-notes in the recurring dotted-eighths and 16ths figure are properly dotted, and she clearly distinguishes between dynamic indications and notes marked by accents and staccatos. But beyond all that, Susan’s playing of the piece radiates the inner glow of real warmth and well-being that spring from the pages of one of Schubert’s more optimistic and playful works, a score free of the dark and disturbing currents that swirl menacingly though much of his music. Schubert sounds genuinely happy in this sonata, and so does Susan Merdinger.
Moving on to the Brahms Rhapsodies, I can truly say that I am agape at the declamatory power with which Susan delivers these works. The only word I can think of to describe her readings and her playing is volcanic. Her tempos in both Rhapsodies are fast, faster than I think I’ve ever heard these pieces played before. But it’s not just the energy and thrust with which she launches into these scores that make her performances so gripping; from bar one, the listener is plunged into a boiling, roiling, white-hot cauldron of emotional turmoil. It’s as if we’ve been dropped into the midst of Jupiter’s storm that has already been raging for hundreds of years without end before we got there. Just to give you an idea of how driven Susan is in these pieces, I compared her performance of the G-Minor Rhapsody to Martha Argerich’s 1960 debut recital on Deutsche Grammophon on which she plays a varied program of works by different composers, including Brahms’s two Rhapsodies. Argerich’s reputation rests to no small degree on her take-no-prisoners, electrifying pianism, and for her performance of Brahms’s op. 79/2, she take 6:29. Susan Merdinger dispatches it in 5:29, a whole minute faster, and it’s not as if Argerich is slow. I spoke above of Susan’s gripping intensity from bar one; I’ll also say that bar none, these are the most potent and exciting performances of Brahms’s Rhapsodies I’ve personally ever encountered. If she never plays another note for the rest of her life—perish the thought—Susan’s playing of these two works alone would make her, in my book, one of the great pianists of all time.
Following Brahms’s Rhapsodies with Debussy’s Estampes may have been a stroke of genius on Merdinger’s part. First, her approach to the three numbers that make up the set is not one of Impressionistic vagueness adopted by some players; second, one hears in the opening piece, “Pagodes,” a similar triplet ostinato to the one heard throughout Brahms’s op. 79/2. I’ve long maintained that Brahms was one of the links to French Impressionism, but it was his late piano pieces to which I ascribed those links. It was surprising, therefore, for to me to hear those associations reaching back as far as Brahms’s Rhapsodies, written in 1879. Susan’s readings of Estampes are informed by clear and transparent voicing, and above all, by a very strong rhythmic underpinning that brings Debussy’s lines into sharp focus.
Operatic paraphrases were all the rage in the 19th century, and Liszt was probably the grand master of the art. His Rigoletto Paraphrase is everything one could ask for from such a piece; it’s a stunning potboiler of pianistic virtuosity based on the famous fourth act quartet between Rigoletto, Gilda, the Duke, and Maddalena. No less virtuosic, but perhaps a bit more musically substantive, are Liszt’s 19 Hungarian Rhapsodies, believed to be based on native folk tunes and music of the Roma people. Half a dozen of the rhapsodies were arranged for orchestra by Franz Doppler, with some tinkering by Liszt himself. The No. 12, played here by Merdinger, was dedicated to Joseph Joachim, which no doubt explains Liszt’s arrangement of the piece for violin, cello, and piano. It’s also one of the numbers that was orchestrated. Those familiar with the work—which I expect all of Fanfare’s readers are—will know what a real tour de force for piano it is. What you won’t know until you hear Susan play it is just how thrillingly and effectively she brings it off. You can close your eyes and see the notes fly from her fingertips like so many projectiles of tiny tesserae fusing together to form a breathtaking mosaic.
Recording engineers Tim Martyn, Ed Ingold, and David Schoenberg have done a terrific job of balancing the full range, dynamic power, and complex palette of Merdinger’s Steinway grand for a fantastic disc. As with Susan’s prior releases, this album, Soireé, is available CD Baby, CD Universe, susanmerdinger.org, and—I’m assuming by the time you read this—at Amazon.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins