Review by Christopher Webber – Frank Merrick and Henry Holst play Bax Violin Sonatas, etc.
Frank Merrick & Henry Holst
(Nimbus Grand Piano, 4 CD set)
Hot on the heels of Nimbus’s Frank Merrick: A Recorded Legacy, a bumper box of 9 CDs centred on the pianist’s pioneering recordings of Bax’s sonatas and a handful of shorter works – including Paean which was dedicated to him – comes this equally valuable supplement for piano and violin. Merrick’s partner throughout 4 CDs of underexposed 20th c. repertoire is the Danish violinist Henry Holst, a pupil of Carl Nielsen who led the pre-war Berlin Philharmonic under Furtwängler and went on to become principal professor of violin at the Royal Manchester College of Music for thirty years, while continuing his high-profile career as an orchestral leader and soloist.
In the early 1960s they made the first recordings of almost all Bax’s mature violin and piano works for LP, many of which were issued in tiny, limited editions by the Frank Merrick Society. The only significant omission was the ‘4th Sonata’ (in F) from 1928, never published and shortly afterwards re-instrumented as the Nonet. Holst was in his sixties at the time and it would be idle to pretend that his playing is free from blemishes: he frequently suffers from shaky intonation and weak bowing, and there is some clumsy phrasing as well as moments of less-than-ideal unanimity with his septuagenarian partner. The close-miked, two-dimensional mono sound emphasises these shortcomings. And yet … and yet … despite this, these performances are far from being outmoded fossils. There is an authentic poetry here which more recent recordings struggle to recapture. Both Holst and Merrick knew Bax, and they play in the full-on, romantic style, subtle in rubato and strong on portamento, which the composer had in mind when he wrote these extraordinary works. In that sense, these records are invaluable.
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In the Violin Sonata No.1 Holst and Merrick are literally so, because – to contradict Nimbus’s otherwise excellent documentation – they play the 1920 printing of the score, not the slightly cut and polished 1945 revision used by those duos (Gruenberg and McCabe, Gibbs and Wu, Jackson and Wass) who have recorded the work since. As Graham Parlett points out, its publication in two, distinct versions makes this Sonata unique in Bax’s output; and although the differences aren’t huge, its slightly rougher immediacy makes the 1920 version eminently worth hearing. At the very start Merrick brings out the restrained yet impassioned beauty of its unforgettable motto theme – first announced on the piano – with bardic command. The work is anything but rhapsodic, and though the scherzando middle movement could be more playful, both players seem mindful of the Yeats superscription to its final one: ‘A pity beyond all telling is / Hid in the heart of love’. It is a moving reading, warts and all.
The powerful Violin Sonata No.2, with its dominant three-note motif familiar from the obsessive main theme of the orchestral tone poem November Woods is put across with equal passion, if less than the ideal accuracy we find in the benchmark recording by Tamsin Little and Martin Roscoe. The Violin Sonata No.3 (first performed by Nielsen’s son-in-law Emil Telmányi with Bax himself, who found some of it ‘foully hard to play’!) is both shorter and less sensuous than its two companions: the thematic material is perhaps less memorable too, though Holst and Merrick’s advocacy is once again so fervidly adventurous as to make us forget that for the moment. The turbulent Ballad and tragic Legend – perhaps the only work by Bax to directly evoke the horrors of the World War I trenches (‘it came straight out of the horror of that time’) – are only in one movement, but both are cut from the same high-quality cloth as the sonatas, and neither are short-changed here as to force or feeling. The technical slips somehow matter even less than in the three sonatas.
A word as to the remainder (nearly 3 CDs!) of the set. The Delius and Rubbra 2nd Sonatas don’t hold the same level of historic interest as the Bax: both had been previously recorded, and Holst and Merrick aren’t specially persuasive in projecting the individuality of either. The Reger works are also better served elsewhere, notably in Ulf Wallin’s and Roland Pontinen’s excellent complete survey on the cpo label. Although the short works by Sibelius and Prokofiev have been better rendered, Holst had been the first performer of the former and an early champion for the latter, which makes both worth hearing.
I had never heard the two sonatas by the ultra-conservative, Swedish composer Gunnar de Frumerie (1908-87), which are more likable for their tasteful, intelligent structures than for any special individuality. That leaves the delicate andantino from Edward Isaacs’s 1910 sonata, and something by Bernard Stevens which was also new to me: the Fantasia on a theme of Dowland initially offers a disconcertingly dour take on ‘Can she excuse’, but soon Stevens’s stoic fervour and contrapuntal skill draw the listener in to absorbing effect. Holst and (especially) Merrick seem in their element here, working seamlessly together to produce a magisterial interpretation which – as with their Bax – reveals a work of high calibre.
Mike Clements and Adrian Farmer have done a remarkable job in conjuring smooth and clean remasterings from some tricky LP sources. Rob Barnett’s eloquent biographical notes on Merrick and Holst make vivid reading, while the musical ones – mainly by Merrick himself, though Stevens and Rubbra provide their own – are admirable. Curiously there’s nothing to guide us through either Bax’s 1st Sonata or the Prokofiev morceaux, but aside from that (and the slip regarding the version we’re hearing of the former) Nimbus’s lavish annotation and photographs amount to a labour of love showing touching respect for these rare documents of a vanished age.
© Christopher Webber, 2019
Arnold Bax: Legend (1915), Ballad (1916), Violin Sonata No.1 in E major (1910-15, rev. 1920), Violin Sonata No.2 (1915 rev. 1921), Violin Sonata No.3 (1927); Frederick Delius: Violin Sonata No.2 (1923); Edward Isaacs: ‘Andantino’ from Violin Sonata in A (1910); Edmund Rubbra: Violin Sonata No.2, Op.31 (1931); Bernard Stevens: Fantasia on a theme of Dowland, Op.23 (1953); Gunnar de Frumerie: Sonata No.1 in A minor, Op.15 (1934, rev. 1962), Sonata No.2 in C-sharp minor, Op.30 (1944); Jean Sibelius: Sonatine in E major, Op.80 (1915); Max Reger: Sonata No.5 in F-sharp minor, Op.84 (1905), Suite im alten Styl. Op.93 (1906); Serge Prokofiev: Cinq Mélodies, Op.35b (1920). Nimbus Records ‘Grand Piano’ NI8826 (4 CDs, 4 hours 38 minutes)