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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


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Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Violin Sonata No.1 in E minor (1910-1915)
Frederick DELIUS (1863-1934)

Violin Sonata No.2 (1923)
Henry Holst (violin)
Frank Merrick (piano)
Recorded Soho Sound Studios, London January 1965
CONCERT ARTIST/FIDELIO RECORDINGS CACD 9022-2 [45.21]

I’ve had a copy of LPA 1099 on my record shelves for a long time and, harried by surface noise and scratches, it’s now facing honourable retirement in the light of this re-release. Rob Barnett has already reviewed it, noting the original 1965 LP’s place in the undervalued scheme of things that prevailed at the time, and I also happen to share his view as to the performances. I’m enthusiastic to comment on Henry Holst and Frank Merrick, two greatly admired figures from a past now generally neglected by CD. Holst was born in 1899 and lived to a grand age. A pupil of Axel Gade and later Willy Hess, he studied harmony with Nielsen and won an open competition to lead the Berlin Philharmonic in 1923, a position he kept until 1931. Teaching drew him to the Royal Manchester College of Music on Arthur Catterall’s retirement from the position and he then began a steady stream of important engagements in Britain, focused on the North but culminating in his performances of the Walton Concerto (first British performances). From 1945 he taught at the Royal College of Music, became leader of one of the best string quartets of its day, the Philharmonia Quartet, popularised the Busoni Concerto and performing the Elgar, Nielsen and Sibelius Concertos to considerable acclaim. He returned to Denmark but continued to appear in Britain, as evidenced by this meeting with the veteran Frank Merrick. There’s precious little of Holst on CD; the Delius Legende with Gerald Moore is on a Testament Delius compilation and his Archduke Trio with Solomon and Anthony Pini has made at least three silver reappearances. LP reappearances of a Haydn Trio with Pini and Eileen Joyce served notice of his classical credentials but there are other rare performances on the Frank Merrick Society LP label, overseen by Michael G Thomas, that will probably not see the light of day in the foreseeable future; Bax’s Ballad, Legend and Sonatas 2 and 3, sonatas by Frumerie and the second Rubbra, the second movement of Isaacs’ 1910 sonata and Bernard Stevens’ Fantasia on themes of John Dowland. His biggest recording undertaking in the 78 years was the Mendelssohn Concerto, given for Columbia with Sargent when Holst was leader of the Liverpool Philharmonic during the War. Walter Legge tried and failed three times to make a successful set and it remains unissued.

Frank Merrick was older than his violinist partner, born in Clifton in 1886. He was a pupil of the eminent pedagogue Leschetizky with whom he’d studied on Paderewski’s advice. He first performed professionally in the first decade of the twentieth century and, as with Holst, taught at the Royal Manchester College of Music, from 1911-29 overlapping with Egon Petri. As with Holst, whose professional progress he seemed to mirror, Merrick moved to the Royal College of Music in 1929 where he exerted some real influence teaching, and propagandising for Field and contemporary composers. He recorded for Parlophone in the 30s and extensively for RRE – much splendid John Field amongst much else - on LP. Some may know that he was Alan Rawsthorne’s piano teacher, fewer perhaps that his wife, with whom he often performed duets, was the charmingly named Hope Squire, herself, like her husband, a composer. Merrick died at ninety-five in 1981. Thus, so recently, did giants still stalk the earth.

So to the performances. The Bax is well suited to the tempestuous aspect of Holst’s playing. He also proved himself a master of restless, argumentative rhetoric and bold vigorous playing generally. His vibrato can be fast and rather edged and the recording, not ideal, preserves a tone that is never quite varied enough. It’s certainly playing that abjures obviously luscious phraseology whilst never shirking the romanticised impress of the music. His instinct in the first movement is toward cohesion and against over leisurely introspection. He’s far quicker than Gruenberg on Chandos, less obviously pliant than Mei Wu Loc on ASV but grows in noble seriousness and idyllic profusion as the movement develops. His fast second movement is full of resinous drive and drama, full of power but also delicacy in the slow trio section, where he plies lyric ardour well. In the main he is even more successful in Bax’s blaze than in his balm – but only by a small margin, certainly reinforcing the composer’s jibe that this wasn’t a work to be played by middle-aged virgins. Merrick drives with him all the way, relishing the attack and the scurry. Holst brings out the ominous consolatory feeling at the start of the third movement with understanding, projecting with real sensitivity, drawing to an eloquent close. If one has complaints they must reside in his muscularity of address; he doesn’t really float his tone; his directness is an invaluable asset in much of the sonata but doesn’t always extend to the farthermost shores of introspection. However this is a powerfully cohesive and successful traversal.

This is especially pertinent when it comes to the Delius sonata – written in 1923 by the way; Concert Artist preserves Peter Pirie’s 1915 misdating (that’s the First numbered sonata). This is the less successful performance for precisely those reasons that made the Bax so strong and powerful. There are some moments of less than ideal coordination between Holst and Merrick here and a slightly stodgy air to the playing. The poco piu tranquillo section is rather stretchy and in general the lyric sections are rather too slow in relation to the surrounding music for the ebb and flow to be entirely natural. Even in the Lento sections Holst’s masculine persona is apt to flatten the subtlety in favour of declamatory calls to arms and maximal projection. It’s an exultant, exterior and manly interpretation that can impress but fails to explore. Should you want alternatives Graham and Margalit on EMI bring a Grieg-like inflection but relatively little affection; Holmes and Fenby bring real understanding and incremental projections of tone and shaping; Little and Lane utilise every known variety of expressive shading and colour to burnish the line with auburn inwardness. I’m a strong admirer of Little but not often of her Delius, which I find too mannered and languorous. The answer is to highlight the lyric apex of a phrase, a solution instinctively hit upon by the work’s dedicatee and first performer and the man who was the first to record all three numbered Delius Sonatas, Albert Sammons (the First Sonata recording of 1929 was never issued). Until someone reissues that 1924 late acoustic most people will be none the wiser; he may initially sound brusque next to Little but ears attuned to modern sensibility often find older performers perfunctory with their clipped phrase endings and fast tempi.

The original recording imparted a distinct edge to Holst’s tone that Concert Artist have successfully tamed but the recording was made at a relatively low level and things are still a bit boxy, a hazard of the Soho studio’s set up. Otherwise Pirie’s excellent notes are retained – like Rob Barnett I hold Pirie in esteem and learned a lot from his book on the British Musical Renaissance. Yes it would have been nice to have rounded out the disc with other relevant sonata material but I’m happy that these two musicians’ work is once again available. Not first choices then, but always exciting to hear.

Jonathan Woolf

see also review by Rob Barnett



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