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

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My first exposure to Susan Merdinger’s playing was so positive that I jumped at the chance to review this, her latest CD. Since these are recent recordings, whereas the ones I previously reviewed came from earlier in her career, one can make some observations about her earlier and later self. Earlier, her playing was characterized by crisp phrasing with occasional modifications of tempo and tremendous forward momentum. In the Schubert Sonata on this disc, her use of rubato and rallentando has increased exponentially. Whether or not this is her artistic view of Schubert, it both added to and detracted from my impression. The B-Major Sonata here sounds much more lyrical and Schubertian than usual, with its lingering phrases and singing quality, but one’s sense of the work’s structure is somewhat weakened. It is certainly a valid way of looking at the sonata, but considering the composer’s somewhat rambling structure in his sonatas I personally prefer a tighter approach. The choice is yours. Merdinger certainly performs it her own way, particularly the playful, tongue-in-cheek humor in the scherzo, and the range of dynamics she draws from the keyboard is nothing short of amazing.

Merdinger brings the same lingering style to Brahms, but here with better results because his Rhapsodies are tighter and better-structured works. In the Debussy, Merdinger plays with a tighter style and clear sense of structure. These are simply marvelous performances of the Estampes. She sets and maintains a magical mood here; I was spellbound from first note to last.

In Liszt’s overblown showstopper based on the quartet from Rigoletto, Merdinger actually makes music of it by her relaxation of tempo and imaginative phrasing. Whether Liszt himself would have played in this style is of course unknown, but although the gist of the piece is to show off one’s technique, Merdinger finds new and lovely things to say in it. The little flourishes at the ends of her phrases are tossed off in a way that reminded me of snowflakes falling in moonlight. Of course her paying of the theme is not in the same style or structure as the original, but neither is Liszt’s music. She concludes her recital with an imaginative and surprisingly Hungarian-sounding rendition of the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12, making the music almost float in the air during the soft, slow passages, a trick I’ve not heard another pianist pull off.

In toto, then, an interesting and thoughtful recital by a thinking pianist who doesn’t fit into a cookie-cutter style. Recommended.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley