Frank Merrick (piano) & Henry Holst (violin)
rec. 1950s-60s NIMBUS NI8826 [4 CDs: 278:00]
This 4 CD set in Nimbus' Grand Piano series complements an earlier 6 CD collection entitled 'Frank Merrick - A Recorded Legacy', which garnered laudatory reviews from two of our own (review ~ review). In this release, the English pianist teams up with the Danish violinist Henry Holst (1899-1991). Merrick's biography has been outlined in John France's review of the previous release, but a few words about Holst are useful. He studied violin at the Royal Danish Academy of Music with Axel Gade, the son of Niels Wilhelm Gade, and piano and harmony with Carl Nielsen. He later spent a year with Emil Telmányi before travelling to Berlin to complete his studies with Willy Hess. For a time, he led the Berlin Philharmonic under Wilhelm Furtwängler. In 1931, he relocated to London and held a teaching post at the Royal Manchester College of Music and later at the Royal College of Music.
Merrick taught at the Royal Manchester College of Music between 1911-1929, Holst between 1939-1945, so their tenures didn't overlap. Both men, however, taught at the Royal College of Music in the late forties and early fifties, and it's very likely that their partnership began there. Holst's pupils included Arve Tellefsen, Charles Taylor, Raymond Cohen and Martin Milner, who led the Hallé orchestra for many years. I remember my own violin teacher telling me that he'd studied with Holst.
One of the key attractions of the set is that the music on offer was rarely performed at the time, some would even class it as unfashionable. Indeed, today, names such as Edmund Rubbra, Bernard Stevens and Gunnar de Frumeris are hardly at the forefront. Edward Isaacs is a complete newcomer to me. Merrick and Holst's sojourns into the recherché corners of the repertoire add to the allure of this compilation.
There's a substantial amount of Bax. Of the three violin sonatas, No. 1 initially appeared with the Delius Second Sonata on a Concert Artist's LP, which had more widespread distribution than the remainder of the Bax recordings, which derive from Frank Merrick Society limited edition LPs. The former have a modicum of greater bloom to the sound. The dark undercurrents and elegiac thrust of Bax's Legend are all too evident in this deeply felt performance. The Ballad, composed a year later in 1916, most likely gleaned its inspiration from the Easter Rising in Dublin. Turbulent and dramatic, Merrick and Holst capture the very essence with startling effect.
Bax's first two sonatas are suffused with nostalgia and rhapsodizing. They're also bathed in lyricism, with soaring melodies abounding. The performers elegantly steer their way through the constant shifts of mood, and they sound unrepentantly Romantic. They're also successful in the more intimate and personal moments. The folk-orientated music of the Third Sonata reveals the composer's love of Ireland. On the whole, these are compelling and persuasive readings.
I came fresh to Rubbra's Second Sonata, and I find it an absolute gem. Its melodic outpourings ought to have won it many friends yet, surprisingly, it remains a rarity. Those in the know rate the Grinke/Rubbra 1954 recording, which I look forward to hearing at some point. The exquisite slow movement is pensive and wistful, whilst the finale includes a rhythmically animated Spanish-type dance. Other rarities include An Andantino movement from Edward Isaacs' Sonata in A, which canters along at an elegant pace, and Bernard Stevens’ Fantasia on a Theme of Dowland, here on a first studio outing. Gunnar de Frumerie’s Sonatas are another audacious choice. Both are cast in four movements. The Sonata No. 2, for me, has more substance than its predecessor, which I found rather uninspiring. The Op. 30 is generous in lyricism. The second movement is particularly attractive, where the yearning melodic line of the violin weaves a magic spell over a hypnotic piano accompaniment. A confident Scherzo precedes a catchy, Nordic-style Allegretto.
Two works by Max Reger are included. The Fifth Sonata is structured in three movements, in which a pithy scherzo is bookended between two extended movements. The first is quite highly charged, the third is a theme, seven variations and extended fugue. Holst and Merrick play with a firm grasp of the architecture of the work and a true sense of direction. The Suite im alten Styl has a radiant central Largo, here realised with ardent fervour. Prokofiev is represented by Five Melodies, Op.35b. It's a delightful score that originated as Five Songs Without Words for voice and piano, later transcribed by the composer with the help of Paweł Kochański. The performance encapsulates the diverse moods of the work, ranging from serene reflection, whimsy and stridency, to sombre melancholy. Delius' short Second Sonata is captivatingly optimistic and charms the ear. There's an engaging reading of Sibelius’ Sonatine, Op. 80, where much is made of the dynamic contrasts.
The LP sources have yielded perfectly acceptable results bearing in mind the recordings’ age and provenance. The balance between both instrumentalists is consistent and as it should be throughout. The 27-page booklet, in English only, contains Rob Barnett's excellent annotations, which supply useful biographical information and context. Also included are the original programme notes, in most cases written by Frank Merrick, and taken from the original LPs. For me, the experience has been an interesting and worthwhile journey of discovery.
Contents CD1 [79:52] 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 [60:59] 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 [62:13] 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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