Henry (or Henri) Merckel (1897-1969) forged a two-fold career as both an orchestral concertmaster and, to a lesser extent, soloist. For three decades he was at the helm of several French orchestras and kept his profile high. Yet, despite his musical accomplishments, he lacked the individuality of Jacques Thibaud and Zino Francescatti, two of his French contemporaries. He was very much a representative of the Franco-Belgian School of violin playing, with its emphasis on tonal beauty, refinement and good taste. I was very surprised, reading the biographical notes accompanying the CD that he could be an abrasive character and alienated some of his orchestral colleagues – an interesting fact.
His career took him into the recording studios on several occasions, and there is no particular shortage of his recordings. Many will be aware that he was the first violinist to record Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole
in its entirety with the inclusion of the third movement Intermezzo
, pipping Menuhin to the post by one year. The Lalo, together with the Saint-Saëns Violin Concerto no. 3 in B minor, Op. 61 has had several outings on CD.
The Brahms’ Concerto was taped in 1953 and soundwise is showing its age. However, sonics aside, the violinist delivers a captivating performance, with an intelligent grasp of the structure and architecture of the music. Jean Fournet delivers the drama and tension of the orchestral side of things. Having heard many performances of the concerto over the years, I did not recognize the first movement cadenza. It is particularly fine and idiomatic, and I wondered if it was by Merckel himself. The second movement has sincerity and warmth, and there’s a seductive quality about the playing. The finale is delivered with Gallic charm, Fournet providing energy and inspiration. A beguiling and well-articulated gavotte from the E major Partita by Bach provides a stunning encore to this 1953 concert.
The Paganini Concerto fares much better sound-wise. Merckel is now five years older and, at the age of sixty-one his technique is still in rather good shape. His only shortcomings are a leaner and more sinewy tone, and a more taut vibrato conferring a mildly strident edge to his sound, especially in high passages. Yet other than this, the Paganini is a technically virtuosic performance, showcasing his violinistic range to the full. Manuel Rosenthal sets a healthy pace for the first movement with Merckel responding with Italianate sensibility. The cadenza is a technical tour de force
The violinist gives the second movement an operatic take, with long phrases of eloquent expressiveness. What heartfelt and fervent playing he brings to the score. The finale is buoyant and rhythmically alert. Merckel’s technical arsenal of ricochet, spiccato and staccato bowings, pure clear harmonics and left-hand pizzicatos are still, even at this stage in his career, mightily impressive.
Here are live recordings of two concertos, never recorded commercially by Merckel, which provide valuable additions to the violinist’s discography – another winner for Meloclassic.
Previous review: Jonathan Woolf
Masterwork Index: Brahms violin concerto