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Frank Merrick (piano) & Henry Holst (violin)
rec. 1950s-60s NIMBUS NI8826 [4 CDs: 278 mins]
This 4-CD box set is a companion to the 6-CD solo recordings of Frank Merrick
to be found on NI8820 (review
~ review). They contain recordings made in sessions from the late 1950s onwards and to a very large extent the repertoire was new to disc. Now of course it’s not impossible to find the three Bax Violin Sonatas but when Merrick and Holst recorded them, they became discographic pioneers. And though that sounds a rather grand way of phrasing things, the questing nature of this body of discs should not be overlooked. In fact, so far as I can see, the only item they recorded that’s not in this box is Purcell’s Sonata in G, in Merrick’s realization.
The recorded sound is what one might expect of a production of the time and place. Don’t expect plush and upholstered sonics. Instead things are rather dry, which can work against the atmospherics implicit in the Bax sonatas but does rather suit Henry Holst’s rather stringent, tight tonal production. That said, he catches the acrobatic but also poetic paragraphs of the Ballad adeptly aided by a pianist whose prowess as a Bax practitioner was amply demonstrated in the companion box. The First Sonata, and the Delius Second Sonata contained in the second disc, were both reissued a number of years ago by Concert Artist (see review) so my thoughts can be read there at greater length. Peter Pirie’s long booklet note for these two sonatas is not amongst those reprinted by Nimbus in its documentation. The Second Bax sonata reprises Holst’s qualities of resinous intensity, notably when he bleaches his tone; compare and contrast with Erich Gruenberg, for instance, who brings some Viennese glamour to his performance vesting it with far greater amplitude and colour. However, Holst locates the Delian lyricism at the heart of Bax’s inspiration, as well as its nobility, and Merrick is terrifically impressive throughout, not least in the limpidity of the slow movement – a movement where Holst’s intonation falters, and not for the only time in the set. It seems likely these were all one-take performances and that minimal, if any splicing went on, so one should expect some technical failings from time to time, not least because Holst was in his sixties by now, a dangerous time for string players.
Bax’s Third Sonata kicks off the second disc, those anticipations of Delius’ own Third Violin Sonata alive and clear in Merrick’s playing and the March fervour of the second movement resiliently projected by both men. Edward Isaacs was a fine pianist whose 1910 Sonata was taken up by some first-class players – Brodsky, Catterall and Kersey – but hasn’t been recorded in full to this day, so far as I am aware. Here we have just the Andantino, all Holst and Merrick recorded of it; a beautiful example of Edwardian elegance. Rubbra’s Second Sonata is a rarity in this box; something that had been recorded before, by Sammons and Moore on 78s and by Grinke and the composer after them. Holst and Merrick take something of a midway point between the other pairings; neither as athletic as Sammons-Moore, nor as relaxed as Grinke-Rubbra. In comparison with the former paring, the sonata’s finale does lack something in feroce, and tonal vibrancy too. To end this disc there is Bernard Stevens’ Fantasia on a theme of Dowland, a first recording and a worthwhile venture though one that perhaps shows both men at something less than their best.
Disc three is valuable for revealing how Holst and Merrick took to the music of Gunnar de Frumerie. Even though there have been recordings of his music of late, the violin sonatas keep getting largely overlooked. The First Sonata of 1934 (revised some three decades later) is quite compact and in four movements; descriptive, feisty, terse, intense and sporting a finale that evinces rich lyricism as well as a quirky vitality. The bigger span of the Second Sonata is more conventionally shaped and Merrick gets the drumming figures of the scherzo just right whilst the finale is reminiscent of the earlier Rubbra sonata in its fiery drama. If Holst is flat from time to time and strains for tone, the circumstances of the undertaking should always be borne in mind. Holst gave the first private performance of Sibelius’ Sonatine with pianist Victor Schiĝler back in 1921. Here, forty or so years later, he had the chance to record it and the result is clean, clear, witty and genial.
The final disc is given over to Reger and Prokofiev. No one had recorded Reger’s Fifth Sonata until Holst and Merrick, unless you include Adolf Busch’s 78rpm recording of the slim central Allegretto. Merrick was a confirmed admirer of Reger and gave British premieres of the piano music. Here the metrical flexibility of the sonata is safe in the hands of the two performers, its narrative emerging with natural flow and definition. True, some of Holst’s passagework can sound effortful and sometimes – exacerbated by the recording – somewhat one-dimensional but that doesn’t impede the well characterised variations in the finale or the sonata’s triumphant close. Merrick wrote that he had been at the Berlin premiere of the Suite im alten Styl in 1906 and had admired Reger’s control of dynamics, in particular. The three movements are well balanced and ingeniously playful, Merrick following Reger’s dynamic markings as much as the recording allows. Yes, Holst is inclined to be a little sour in places but it’s very well worth preserving for the vitality and insights both men bring to the music. Merrick was also a pioneering Prokofiev performer in Britain and he and Holst play the Five Melodies with a subtle sense of the individual movements’ characters.
This four-disc set offers a splendid conspectus of the partnership between Holst and Merrick. It wraps up the pianist’s studio legacy and presents the bulk of Holst’s studio recordings too – bigger items such as Delius’ Légende and the Archduke and Dumky Trios aside, which are relatively well-known 78 recordings and have been transferred to CD. Most of the original LP notes have been reprinted and the majority were written by Merrick. There is also a fine nine-page appreciation of the musicians by Rob Barnett. If you acquired that earlier Merrick set you should on no account overlook this one, which shows how musicians who reached their early musical maturity in the 1910s (Merrick) and 1920s (Holst) continued to consolidate and develop decades later.
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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