Jean HUBEAU (1917-1992)
Violin Concerto in C (1939) [23:41]
Gian Francesco MALIPIERO (1882-1973)
Violin Concerto (1932) [18:05]
Henry Merckel (violin)
Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Française / Henri Tomasi
rec. 12 January 1953 (Malipiero) and 5 December 1955 (Hubeau), Paris

French violinist Henry Merckel’s valuable studio discography as soloist, chamber player and orchestral leader (he recorded in all capacities) has been valuably augmented in recent years by a series of broadcast performances. Though he did record the Beethoven Concerto, it is not yet been reissued, so the recent presentation of a live 1953 off-air traversal by Forgotten Records has been enormously exciting news for admirers of the French player (see review) as indeed was Meloclassics’ restoration of his Brahms and Paganini Concertos from the same decade. Such things encourage hope that much more is yet to emerge from the vaults of French broadcasting organisations, and—as if to further the point—here is another brace of concerti from 1953-1955.

Assiduous collectors of the player or the repertoire, or both, will know that his wartime recording of Jean Hubeau’s Concerto, composed in 1939—dedicated to and premiered by Merckel—has been reissued on Dutton CDBP9085. This live performance dates from December 1955 and, as with the companion concerto by Malipiero, is conducted by Henri Tomasi, also well-known as a composer. There is just a bit less personalised bite to Merckel’s tone in 1955, his vibrato speed having slightly slowed over the intervening thirteen years: Merckel was now nearing 60, a dangerous time for a string player. So whilst there is a little less of the quivering intensity he brought to bear in his 1930s heyday, and the tone is a touch acidic in places, he is still instantly recognisable for his brilliant flair in passagework and in his sculpting of that dreamy opening paragraph. There is huge warmth in this generously-minded concerto, and a serene succulence to the slow movement—a kind of French Korngold in places—where there is time for the winds to make their presence felt just as much as there is for Merckel to spin his delicious solo chanson. Light-hearted and giocoso, Merckel proves just as adept an interpreter of its whimsical energy as he had on shellac disc. It is a reading that is both stylish and commanding.

Two years earlier he taped the Malipiero Concerto. If you are familiar with André Gertler’s recording with Smetáček and the Prague Symphony on Supraphon, be prepared for an almighty shock. Merckel and Tomasi take the Concerto by the scruff of its neck and drive through it at a blistering tempo. It depends how Venetian you like this concerto, how baroque-motoric or not. Sporting seductive slides, Merckel barely stops for breath, setting a cracking tempo more Allegro molto than Allegro con spirito. But the excitement is palpable and even fervid. At a walking tempo, the slow movement is beautifully conceived: Merckel is the more intense, Gertler the more tender. Indeed, the character of the music is so changed by tempo decisions and by the sharp bristling rhythms that one can occasionally be forgiven for thinking one is listening to two different works. The longest movement is the finale, where Gertler finds space for the folkloric evocations, and where Merckel wraps them up buoyantly in his wholly different conception. How valuable that two such different performances can still cast their own very different spells.

There are no notes, as is usually the case with Forgotten Records. The timing is short and we already have that premiere recording of the Hubeau, making this one an ancillary purchase. That is my head talking; my heart says this is a superb restoration and, if you have any interest in either concerto, you should hear this disc without delay and hope that Forgotten Records has more Merckel up its sleeve.

Jonathan Woolf