Frank Merrick: A Recorded Legacy

Beginning in 1961 (at the age of 75) and extending through to the early 1970s Frank Merrick recorded important works from his recital repertoire, and much else besides. These recordings, although fully intended for publication, and reviewed in various periodicals at the time of release, were nonetheless a largely private venture. The recollection of Frank Merrick’s family is that less than 100 copies of each LP was produced. During the initial phase of this project Nimbus was fortunate to be able to find all of the FMS titles and all but two of the RRE titles. This selection presents the strongest performances and the best recorded sound available to us.
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This six-CD boxed set of recordings made by the English pianist Frank Merrick (1886-1981) is remarkable for its diversity and sheer competence of performance. The collection is based largely on the ground-breaking collection of LPs issued by the Frank Merrick Society and the Rare Recorded Edition from 1961 onwards. This featured many important works from Merrick’s recital career. The liner notes explain that these recordings were made for private listening. In fact, one member of the Merrick family noted that less than 100 copies of each LP were produced. There were 24 numbered releases by the society, with three issued by the Rare Recorded Edition and one by Cabaletta. This former company went on to produce some 17 numbered releases, including the nine-volume John Field Edition. It was not possible to find all the LPs needed to produce a ‘Complete Frank Merrick.’ Some “tough selection” was done and several important works were omitted. This included sonatas by Beethoven, Brahms and Balakirev as well as several piano concertos. One reason cited was that with the best will in the world, even modern restoration techniques could not correct the original recordings. Other works that did not reflect Merrick at his best were also excluded. I understand that the exigencies of the original recording process did not allow for ‘retakes and edits’. James Methuen-Campbell has provided a detailed 9-page biography and assessment of Frank Merrick in the first section of the liner notes. I present a few brief details of his notable career to aid the reader in situating his life and times.The liner notes include a detailed biography of Frank Merrick’s life: in fact, I believe that it is the most comprehensive study yet made available. James Methuen-Campbell has also provided notes about the repertoire. It is proposed to issue a companion set of 4 CDs in 2019. This will feature recordings made by Frank Merrick in partnership with the violinist Henry Holst. It will include Bax’s violin sonatas, and works by Max Reger, Jean Sibelius, Frederick Delius, Sergei Prokofiev, Ernest Rubbra, Edward Isaacs and Bernard Stevens. Based on the present set of CDs, it promises to further enhance the memory of one of the most remarkable pianists from the United Kingdom. John France, MusicWeb-International

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 Four Romantic 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. Jonathan Woolf, MusicWeb-International

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