Less fêted then Thibaud, Neveu and Francescatti, Henry Merckel was still an important presence on the French concert stage. He juggled a long-term career as concertmaster with solo and chamber music responsibilities. There is a series of significant recordings on 78 and LP, a number of which I’ve reviewed. Some may remember the trio he led with Paul Tortelier and Jean Hubeau. I hadn’t realised that Merckel was something of a prickly character, and that a succession of petitions were presented by fellow orchestral players protesting at his supercilious behaviour.
This release, devoted to live performances given by Merckel in the 1950s, is the first in a series of discs from Meloclassic to which I’ve listened. There are some astonishing things in their catalogue, which is artist-based and features, largely, broadcast material from the later 1930s to the early 1960s. Many of the artists, like Merckel, are French and much comes from French radio recordings.
Merckel never recorded either of these two concertos commercially; another excellent feature of the broadcast material being that it allows one to hear musicians on the wing in repertoire largely unfamiliar from their studio discographies. Meloclassic likes to leave in studio announcements, which adds to the intimacy and immediacy of the presentation. I suspect in the case of the Brahms it has been truncated to a mention of the soloist’s name – with details about the concerto excised – because there’s only the smallest of gaps before the music starts. The conductor is Jean Fournet who directs the Toulouse orchestra in December 1953. The opening orchestral paragraphs are strong, sinewy, and brassy with a fiery quality that generates impetus and sustains momentum throughout the concerto. Merckel’s tone is still very recognisable, slim and full of expressive gesture, supported by a facile though by now not cast-iron technique. Parts of the cadenza sound a bit effortful but also very characterful and personalised. The distinctive oboe in the second movement – Fritz Kreisler sometimes gently bowed to Leon Goossens at this point – ushers in some sweetly communicative solo playing, and whilst orchestral ensemble isn’t the tightest the music-making is lyrically persuasive. Fournet insists on some strikingly heavy rhythms in the finale – very unusually emphatic - and Merckel responds in dextrous fashion. It’s the violinist who announces his encore, the Gavotte en Rondeau
from Bach’s Third Partita.
Five years later we find Merckel teamed with the Paris Radio Symphony Orchestra and Manuel Rosenthal for a performance of Paganini’s Concerto No.2. The announcer’s introduction is longer here than in the case of the Brahms. The sound is also more immediate in Paris than it had been in Toulouse, with a typically edgy Parisian string tone and quite a close recording. This exposes some frailties in the wristy Merckel’s playing. He was by now in his early 60s and whilst technically past his best, and with a tone audibly thinning, he retains a real communicative allure. He vests the slow movement with a degree of operatic allure, and in the finale he brings drollery to the harmonics and left hand pizzicati, and plays with real panache.
A few other points: Merckel recorded two caprices on Vega LP, but no other examples of his Paganini were preserved. He recorded no Brahms at all. He recorded the Menuets
from the Third Partita on 78, but that is the extent of his Bach on disc. All of which makes this release the more valuable.
One other small technical point I should mention is that throughout some of the radio broadcasts to which I’ve listened, and here, there is a gap between the end of one movement and the resumption of the next in which the live ambience is cut off and resumes with the next track. I prefer the ambient concert noise to be maintained throughout and not cut off and turned back on.
Presentation is in a digipack with notes ‘tipped’ in – with excellent photographs, by the way, and helpful text, in English in the case of my copy. Surveying the available discs and seeing details of some of those to come - many violinists, chamber ensembles and pianists – I have no hesitation in saying that this is potentially the most exciting tranche of broadcast material to be made available in many years.
Masterwork Index: Brahms violin concerto