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Frank Merrick: A Recorded Legacy
rec. 1961-1970s NIMBUS NI8820-25 [6 CDs: 419:02]
Those curious about rare British repertoire and long-lived performers alighted on the LPs of the Frank Merrick Society and Rare Recorded Edition. There one could find Bax from a performer whom the composer greatly admired, a raft of John Field recordings when one could find little elsewhere, a number of Merrick’s own compositions as well many a smaller piece and a sizeable amount of Reger. Since John France has already reviewed this box and has written useful biographical material about Merrick and his recording activities, I’ll add just a few of my own thoughts to the mix.
My first experiences of Merrick came via his Parlophone 78s of Field’s Op.1 No.3 sonata and his completion of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony which Columbia had recorded, and only later did I come across his recordings with Henry Holst, which were of particular interest. The excellent news is that the second volume of this series will include all those violin sonatas and smaller pieces; the three Bax Violin Sonatas, and a raft of other names such as Reger (again), Sibelius, Delius, Prokofiev, Rubbra, Stevens et all. Regarding Prokofiev, Merrick the pianist did much to promote the sonatas in Britain. His career as a very busy soloist and recital and recording artist is given due prominence in James Methuen-Campbell’s fine booklet notes.
The performances are not presented as they appeared on the LPs. Rather, they have been culled from various discs and presented in recitals, either by composer or thematically (such as ‘British Music, inevitably). Thus the first disc is a miscellaneous one, from Antonio de Cabezón to Eduard Schütt chronologically speaking, and offers a fine entrée into the relatively modest production values of the original LPs, the good restoration work that has been carried out on them, the clever programmatic selections and the frequently very sympathetic and stylish performances by the veteran pianist. Some are culled from a live 1961 Wigmore Hall concert, others in the studio. He recorded all Field’s Nocturnes and two are here, as well as the second movement Rondo of the Sonata Op.1 No.2, played with charm and élan. His Debussy is distinctive, his Soler buoyant, the range of his enthusiasms admirable.
The second disc focuses on Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms. He plays Beethoven’s Andante favori and the Op.90 sonata. He almost invariably played a Beethoven sonata at his recitals feeling them central to his repertoire. By the time of these recordings detail has sometimes become sketchy and the spirit should be prized over the detail in the former work. His Schubert is valuable, not least the A minor Sonata and the fine Impromptu D935 No.1. Both the Schubert sonata and Brahms’ Rhapsody in B minor were recorded at the Wigmore Hall recital. Reger occupies the whole of the third disc. Merrick remained devoted to Reger’s music for much of his performing career, first performing it publically in 1910 and continuing until the end. The Variations and Fugue on a theme of JS Bach was recorded when he was 75 and was, in fact, the first commercial recording of the piece. Apart from a wobbly opening note – like tape wow – things go impressively and the five selections from Aus meinem Tagebuch are audaciously and ripely characterised – whether insouciant, melancholy, or terpsichorean. Yes, there is differing sound quality from the four pieces derived from one LP and the one from another – the odd man out is the Romanze from Book 3, which doesn’t sound as good as the companion pieces and has a conspicuous edit – but these are valuable documents of a Reger pioneer in Britain. And don’t overlook the valiant duo of Merrick and his ex-student Michael Round in the powerful, thickly recorded Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue for two pianos.
For many admirers of Merrick the executant, Bax’s name looms largest. Bax is well-known to have admired Merrick’s performances of his own music, apparently preferring them to Harriet Cohen’s, and the existence of the four piano sonatas, though long overlooked in favour of the cycle by Iris Loveridge, offers a powerful fulcrum of interpretation by a Bax contemporary. The recordings are sometimes slightly hard-toned – it’s a recording phenomenon, not a reflection of Merrick’s playing – but the interpretations are another matter. It would be interesting to know if Merrick preserved his own timings from recitals and thus to see how quickly he took the sonatas in the 1920s and 30s. Decades later he is roughly on a par with Loveridge in No.2 but somewhat slower in the remaining three, giving greater latitude to the music’s expressive potential; it’s not a question of a lack of technique necessary to surmount the technical difficulties. He catches the music’s pulsation and drama, as well as its reflectiveness, and these are important documents of Baxian performance on disc.
The Fourth Bax sonata is part of the fifth disc, a British Recital that includes a quartet of other Bax works, a charming set of variations by Hope Squire, whom Merrick had married in 1911 but who was to die in 1936, John Ireland’s The Undertone and Rawsthorne’s 1953 FourRomantic Pieces. Merrick kept abreast of new developments in piano music and this piece was written at Merrick’s request. Rawsthorne had been Merrick’s pupil in the late 1920s and the Master played the pupil’s music at the 50th anniversary of his 1903 debut.
The last disc is given over to Merrick’s own compositions. The outstanding mezzo Sybil Michelow sings five of the eight Esperanto poems (texts and translations are printed in the booklet if your Esperanto is not up to snuff). These lovely songs, whether more or less harmonically adventurous, involve refined piano postludes, passionate romance, dappled treble sonorities and much more. The performances are really memorable and so is the music and someone should take up these songs. Merrick plays a beautiful Bonny Blue Bell variations – a lovely piece, too trenchantly captured by the microphone. Hares on the Mountains is a three-part invention whilst there are some trivial finger slips in An Ocean Lullaby. Seascape is a movement taken from the complete recording of Merrick’s Piano Concerto No.2 in which the composer is accompanied by the Beckenham Orchestra directed by John Foster. It’s a romantic delight, full of spume and fleck – so listen elsewhere to Ronald Stevenson’s transcription of it as the solo piano ‘Hebridean Seascape’: you’ll find it on Toccata TOCC0388. Finally, there are the two movements Merrick contributed to the Schubert centennial competition, not heard in the original 78 but in the LP recording made by The St Cecilia Orchestra, led by the virtuoso Lionel Bentley and conducted by Trevor Harvey.
These boxes do not constitute the Complete Merrick on LP; a few performances proved elusive and some were sub-standard technically. I happen somewhat to regret that Ireland’s Piano Sonata is not included. It’s hardly rare on disc these days but it was when Merrick recorded it, but at least he did get to record it unlike, say, William Murdoch. Other omissions of interest include two sets of Theme and Variations, by Parry and Glazunov, as well as Merrick’s own concertos and those of Field – the last of archival interest, really, given his representation on disc these days. But as Nimbus makes clear a ‘Complete Merrick’ was never a possibility given technical and recording limitations. It would also have involved an extra box set at least.
Greedily and perhaps unrealistically, I hope the next box might include a Merrick discography which will alert listeners to the range of his interests and the catholicity of his repertoire. Until then, this handsome box stands as a splendid and devoted undertaking.
Disc 1 Antonio de CABEZON (1510-1566)
Diferencias sobre el canto del caballero [12:53] FMS1 J.S. BACH (1685-1750)
Das Wohltemperirte Clavier Book 2 no.11 Prelude and Fugue in F BWV 880 (c.1742) [4:39] FMS3 Antonio SOLER (1729-1783)
Sonata in C-sharp minor R 21 (?) [4:53] FMS1 Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-91)
Fantasia in C minor K 475 (1785) [13:42] FMS4 John FIELD (1782-1837)
Cavatina in E ‘Reviens, reviens’ H 53 (1832?) [7:17] FMS9
Nocturne in A major H 14 (?) [3:57] RRE124
Nocturne in C minor H 25 (c.1814) [3:11] RRE124
Sonata op.1 no.1 (2nd movement ‘rondo’) H 8 (1801) [3:48] FMS6 Frederic CHOPIN (1810-49)
Berceuse in D flat, op.57 (1843/44) [4:23] FMS9 Theodor LESCHETIZKY (1830-1915)
Souvenirs d’Italie, Canzonetta Toscana all’antica, op.39, no.3 (c.1900) [3:00] RRE137 Eduard SCHUTT (1856-1933)
Valse mignonne (1889?) [2:52] RRE137 Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Estampes no.3 ‘Jardins sous la pluie’ L 100 (1903) [4:31] RRE129
Preludes Book 1 no.5 ‘Les Collines d’Anacapri’ L117 (1909-10) [3:07] FMS3
Preludes Book 2 no.7 ‘La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune’ L 123 (1912-13) [3:59] FMS3 Enrique GRANADOS (1867-1916)
Goyescas Book 1 no.1 ‘Los Requiebros’ (1911) [8:14] FMS1
Disc 2 Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Andante Favori WoO 57 (c.1804) [9:03] RRE117
Piano Sonata No.27 in E minor (1814) [11:47] FMS2 Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Adagio in E major D612 (1818) [5:22] FMS1
Impromptu D935 (1827) [9:58] RRE120
Sonata in A minor D845 (1825) [32:52] FMS2 Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Rhapsody in B minor, op.79 no.1 (1879) [7:59] FMS3
Disc 3 Max REGER (1873-1916)
From ‘Aus meinem Tagebuch’, op.82 (1904–12) [18:13] FMS5 & RRE129
Variations and Fugue on a theme of J.S. Bach, op.81 (1904) [30:23] FMS5
Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue for two pianos, op.96 (1906) [26:42] HRS2003
Disc 4 Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Piano Sonata No.1 in F-sharp minor GP 127 (1910/21) [19:16] FMS 7
Piano Sonata No.2 in G major GP 225 (1919/20) [23:50] FMS6
Piano Sonata No.3 in G-sharp minor GP 279 (1926) [25:42] FMS7
Moy Mell (The Happy Plain) An Irish Tone Poem for 2 pianos GP180 (1916) [9:30] HRS2004
With Michael Round (piano)
Disc 5 Arnold BAX
Piano Sonata No.4 in G major GP 318 (1932) [18:04] FMS8
A Hill Tune GP 232 (1920) [3:46] RRE129
Burlesque GP 229 (1920) [3:48] RRE129
Lullaby GP 224 (1920) [3:53] FMS7
Paean (Passacaglia) GP 294 (1928) [3:20] FMS3 Hope SQUIRE (1878-1936)
Variations on Black Eyes Susan (c.1910) [12:59] RRE118 John IRELAND (1879-1962)
Prelude No.1 ‘The Undertone’ (1914) [2:49] FMS3 Alan RAWSTHORNE (1905-71)
Four Romantic Pieces (1953) [8:39] RRE129
Disc 6 Frank MERRICK (1886-1981)
From Eight Esperanto Poems (c.1950) [12:42] FMS17
With Sybil Michelow (mezzo-soprano)
Bonny Blue Bell, Variations on a Somerset Folk Song (1910) [5:54] FMS4
Hares on the Mountains (c.1934) [3:40] FMS1
An Ocean Lullaby (1910) [5:44] RRE129
Seascape from Piano Concerto No.2 (1936) [12:27] FMS15
Two Movements in Symphonic Form: A Completion of Franz SCHUBERT’S Unfinished Symphony (1928) [16:05] FMS15
The St Cecilia Orchestra/Trevor Harvey
rec. 1961 onwards FMS= Frank Merrick Society; RRE = Rare Recorded Edition; HRS=Cabaletta LP