Frank Merrick (piano) & Henry Holst (violin)
rec. 1950s-60s NIMBUS NI8826 [4 CDs: 278 mins]
There needs to be a listening strategy for this exploration of music played by Henry Holst and Frank Merrick. It begins with an acceptance that each of these recordings were (probably) made at one sitting. There was little chance for editing and enhancement of the final tapes. Here and there Holst seems to be a ‘bit’ out of tune, or at least not quite getting the intonation right (flat). This said, I guess that what will impress the listener most is the enthusiasm and the sheer creative ‘bravery’ in laying so down many works that were not in the public eye (or ear). On this basis, this four-CD collection is essential listening to all who are interested in 20th century music and its performance history. A biographical history of both artists is easily accessible on the Internet: I will not rehearse it here.
Clearly, it is important to have the first complete recorded cycle of Bax’s Violin Sonatas (at least as published). That said, I would not recommend these as ‘my first choice’ for someone new to Bax. The collection opens with Arnold Bax’s ruminative Legend. This was completed during February 1915 in the early stages of the First World War. Nobody knows what the actual ‘Tale’ is, but clearly it is a combination of romantic love, melancholy and frightening visions of conflict. Bax himself insisted that ‘this piece was always associated in my mind [with the war] …and came straight out of the horror of that time…like so much of the second violin sonata.’ The overall mood of this Legend is one of melancholy: it is more a lament than ‘battle music’. The following year finds Bax composing his Ballad for violin and piano. He was now less concerned with the Great War and more interested in the politics of Ireland and the Easter Rising of 1916. The music has a seascape feel to it as well: it is a ‘stormy thing.’ There is beauty as well as anguish here. Once again, we do not know the story behind the Ballad. It is a complex and difficult work for both players.’ I enjoyed Henry Holst and Frank Merrick’s recital of these two rarely heard and underrated pieces.
Colin Scott Sutherland has given a rule of thumb for appreciating Bax’s three violin sonatas: the first two are ‘sensuous and ornate’ and the third is ‘more austere and scored economically.’ I felt that I was in the presence of two master-craftsmen with this recital of Bax’s Violin Sonata no.1 in E major. It was composed between 1910-15 and was subsequently revised in 1920 and 1945. I understand that it is the 1920 version that is presented here, although the liner notes suggest it is the later revision. Certainly, Graham Parlett’s Bax Catalogue (Oxford, 1999) states this to be the case. All subsequent recordings are played from the 1945 version – Gruenberg/McCabe on Chandos, Gibbs/Mei-Loc Wu on ASV and Jackson/Wass on Naxos. This final CD is invaluable, as it includes the 2nd and 3rd movements from the original 1910 version. I found Henry Holst’s tone just that little bit astringent during much of this Sonata. Even the passionate and romantically charged opening movement suffers from this sharpness of tone. The ‘scherzo’ is not quite as ‘quicksilver’ as I would have liked: the recording gets a little muddy in places. The finale is quite lovely. With its references to the opening movement and its ‘consolatory’ mood concludes what is a remarkable performance, despite my concerns noted above. The entire work is worthy of the beautiful lady, Natalia Skarginski whom Arnold Bax followed across Europe to the Ukraine in order to plead his suit.
The Violin Sonata No.2 (1915 rev.1921) was conceived in four movements. The composer insisted that they be played without an obvious break. The work is dominated by a single motif, which Bax also used in his orchestral tone poem November Woods (1917). I felt that Holst’s technique here was very brittle and quite ‘hard’ on the ear. I compared it to extracts from the Gibbs/Mei-Loc Wu recording on ASV and confirmed my opinion. That said, Holst does capture the angst and despair that colours this entire work. This is no romantic rhapsody, but a deeply felt work that reflects the crisis of the times. There are some moments when serenity seems to be reached, only to be pushed to one side. This Sonata is characterised by the nihilism of the final ‘allegro feroce’, although this does eventually lead to a more positive conclusion. Alas, the recording does seem to let the side down. That said, it is clearly committed and passionate playing by both men. It is a sonata that deserves more than its less-than-tenuous hold in the repertoire.
CD 2 opens with Bax’s Violin Sonata no.3, composed in 1927. It is constructed in two linked movements. In the opening section Bax makes use of a ‘wayward Celtic song.’ There is more of the Celtic twilight here than might be expected. Despite the typically more taught soundscape there are some interludes which capture the composer’s brooding. There is an Irish dance tune in the finale as well as autobiographical ‘dreaming’ by Bax himself. I felt that Holst and Merrick managed successfully to balance the diverse elements in this powerful Sonata.
Frederick Delius’s Violin Sonata (1923) inhabits the misty quasi-impressionistic world of Ophelia, and, as Rob Barnett has suggested, Frank Bridge’s elusive There is a willow grows aslant a brook. The duo has given an attractive performance of this lyrical rhapsody.
The ‘andantino’ from Manchester-born composer and pianist Edward Isaacs’s Violin Sonata in A major (1910) is hardly a masterpiece. Yet it reflects the sentimental taste of Edwardian Britain. This work is melodically attractive, but with a touch of melancholy. The middle section is livelier. Merrick and Holst have convinced me that the entire Sonata deserves at least one revival and/or professional recording.
Edmund Rubbra’s Violin Sonata no.2, op.31 (1931) contains something quite surprising. The finale features a vibrant Iberian dance, which is like nothing I can recall in his opus. It nods towards Bartok and Manuel de Falla in its impact. This does not quite ‘come off’: there seems to be a lack of passion and drive, although I have not heard this work in any other version. The middle ‘Lament’ is truly tragic in sound.
Neither does Bernard Steven’s Fantasia on a Theme of Dowland for violin and piano, Op.23 quite work for me here. Stevens has a theme (‘Can she excuse my wrongs’) that can be realised in a forlorn mood or as a vibrant Galliard. I appreciated this work but guess that I would turn to Kenneth Sillito and Hamish Milne on Albany (TROY 572). That said Holst and Merrick bring great depth to the more introverted parts of this work. Jonathan Woolf, in his review of this collection, is correct in suggesting that here, the duo is ‘at something less than their best.’
I liked the two Violin Sonatas by the Swedish composer Gunnar de Frumerie on CD 3. I have heard very little of his music. These sonatas are exciting and thoughtful by turn. I guess that I would like to hear them in a modern recording. Jean Sibelius’s little ‘Sonatine’ in E major, op.80 was written in 1915. This work exudes wit and sheer happiness, possibly inspired by a Christmastide sleigh-ride. The lack of angst is reflected in Holst and Merrick’s take.
The final CD presents Max Reger’s massive Violin Sonata no.5 in F sharp minor, op.84 composed in 1905. Listening to this excellent performance (notwithstanding the above-mentioned caveats) I wondered why Reger is typically regarded as dry-as-dust. This is a big work, possibly even overblown, that demands our attention. The two flanking movements are intense and virtuosic whilst the gentler middle one is over in a flash. The finale is cast as an ‘introductory’ theme, followed by seven variations with a ‘triumphant’ fugue thrown in for good measure. I think that I surprised myself by finding this one of the most enjoyable (for me) pieces in this collection.
The second work by Reger is the Janus-like Suite in the Olden Style composed in 1906. Since that time, the composer has ‘dished it up’ for full orchestra by which it is (slightly) better known. Listeners will discern nods towards J.S. Bach’s ‘Brandenburg’ Concerto no.3 in the opening swashbuckling ‘Praeludium’. Maybe there are hints of Anton Bruckner in the deeply felt ‘largo.’ It comes as no surprise that Reger ends his Suite with a ‘fugue.’ This massive construction balances what is really a perpetuum mobile with a few more reflective episodes and massive ‘final entries’ and coda. Surely, no ‘Old Suite’ had so many chromatic notes and chords. I do not know why Reger gets written off as boring, academic and downright dull. This is proof that there is another side to this composer: witty, puckish, straddling the musical boundary between Brahms and Schoenberg and featuring a deep absorption of Bach. Well played here by the duo, despite one of two intonation issues, but so what! Great music.
Sergei Prokofiev's Cinq Mélodies were written during his exile in Paris during the 1920s. They are an arrangement of songs ‘he had composed earlier.’ Not normally a fan of Prokofiev, I found these five pieces urbane, full of interest and often quite moving. Holst and Merrick give studied performances of this deeply lyrical music.
What first struck me about this four-CD conspectus was the documentation. The liner notes present a detailed 10,000-word essay/biography of both artists written by the Founding Editor of MusicWeb International, Rob Barnett. This will inspire the historically minded in further exploring many facets of contemporary musicianship. The biography is preceded by a context-setting introduction, which explains that many of the works heard in this set, were well and truly out of fashion in the 1960s. For example, Bax’s reputation was then based on Tintagel and The Garden of Fand. On a positive note, Iris Loveridge had recorded her ground-breaking cycle of Bax’s piano music for Lyrita (1959-63). Now, through the age of LP, CD and streaming, it is possible to find several versions of Bax’s Legend, Ballad and Violin Sonatas, but Holst and Merrick were the pioneers in every case.
Nimbus were lucky in having the programme notes for virtually all these works. They were issued as part of the Frank Merrick Society/Rare Recorded Edition LPs. Many were written by Merrick, with two (Rubbra and Stevens) provided by the composers themselves. They are model notes that err on the technical, rather than the descriptive, model more popular today. But they are perfectly comprehensible to anyone who has a moderate understanding of musical theory. They make for fascinating reading, especially if one has the score at hand. I was unable to find the note for Bax Sonata no.1: the text seems to jump from the Ballad to no.2! And nothing about the Prokofiev Cinq Mélodies either.
The final piece of editorial information is the ‘Note on the LP sources.’ Listeners need to understand that the original records were made for private listening. The Merrick Family suggest that less than 100 copies of each LP were pressed. In total there were some 24 numbered releases, with 20 issued by the Merrick Society and four by the Rare Recorded Edition (RRE) and Cabaletta. A further 17 volumes were issued by RRE including the nine-volume edition of the ‘complete’ piano works of John Field. The recording dates of each work are not given, although the ‘source LP’ is cited (see above).
I guess that relatively few people will purchase this set to have pristine recordings of these important works. They are quite clearly historical and reflect the fact that they are around 50-60 years old. Listeners who wish to explore virtually the entire corpus of the Holst/Merrick discography will be delighted. And they are essential listening for all enthusiasts of Arnold Bax.
CD1 Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Legend (1915) [8:44]
Ballad (1916) [8:02]
Violin Sonata No.1 in E major (1910-15 rev 1920, 1945) [33:02]
Violin Sonata No.2 (1915 rev.1921) [30:28]
Violin Sonata No. 3 (1927) [18:11] Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)
Violin Sonata No.2 (1923) [13:04] Edward ISAACS (1881-1953)
Violin Sonata in A – Andantino (1910) [9:03] Edmund RUBBRA (1901-1986)
Violin Sonata mo.2, Op.31 (1931) [19:44] Bernard STEVENS (1916-1983)
Fantasia on a theme of Dowland, Op.23 (1953) [15:00]
CD3 Gunnar de FRUMERIE (1908-1987)
Violin Sonata No.1 in A minor, Op.15 (1934 rev.1962) [19:14]
Violin Sonata No.2 in C sharp minor, Op.30 (1944) [29:14]
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Sonatine in E major, Op.80 (1915) [12:36]
CD4 Max REGER (1873-1916)
Violin Sonata No.5 in F sharp minor, Op.84 (1905) [30:07]
Suite im alten Styl, Op.93 (1906) [19:28] Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Five Melodies, Op.35b (1920) [13:02]
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