This six-CD boxed set of recordings made by the English pianist Frank Merrick 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.
Frank Merrick was born into a musical family at Clifton, near Bristol, on 30 April 1886. After a strong grounding in piano playing and theory from his parents, he went to Vienna to study with the Polish pianist, professor and composer, Theodor Leschetizky. I think is fair to say that after the completion of his training, Merrick proceeded to have a distinguished career rather than a spectacular one.
Listeners owe to Merrick the rediscovery of John Field, the Irish precursor of Chopin. Often regarded as being a great interpreter of JS Bach, Merrick apparently caused quite a stir with his ‘Proms’ performance of the Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor BWV 1052.
Aside from his concertizing, Merrick was a respected teacher, both at the Royal Manchester College of Music and the Royal College of Music. Eminent students included Alan Rawsthorne and Tom Pitfield.
Frank Merrick composed a considerable catalogue of music including two piano concertos. In 1928, during the Schubert Centenary Year he won a prize offered by the Columbia Gramophone Company for a completion of Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ Symphony.
Merrick’s non-musical activities included the post of Treasurer of the Suffragist Movement and he was an active member of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA). Merrick’s first wife was Hope Squire, who was also a composer.
During his time in Manchester, Merrick was Treasurer of the Suffragist Movement. Following a strong campaign by the RSPCA for the humane slaughter of animals, he became a vegetarian and latterly was Vice-President of the Vegetarian Society. Merrick was a conscientious objector during the Great War and was subsequently imprisoned at Wandsworth Prison and Wormwood Scrubs.
Frank Merrick died on 19 February 1981 aged nearly 95 years.
There are more than forty works in this six CD collection. It does not seem a good idea for me to write a critique and commentary on every one of them. So, I will mention a few highlights – at least for me.
Frank Merrick has a wide-ranging musical interest. From the early ‘Diferencias sobre el canto del caballero’ by the 16th century Spanish Renaissance composer Antonio De Cabezon to the relatively modern Four Romantic Pieces by Alan Rawsthorne, he explored virtually the entire range of piano music.
There are many well-known pieces included on these six discs such as Chopin’s lyrical ‘Berceuse’, an extract from Granados’s Goyescas, Schubert’s Sonata in A minor D845, Johannes Brahms’s Rhapsodie in B minor, op.79, no.1 and Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.27 in E minor. I warmed to Merrick’s playing of ‘Jardins sous la pluie’ from Claude Debussy’s Estampes.
A step down the musical ‘popularity’ hierarchy is represented by an entire disc devoted to relative rarities by Max Reger. At least they are not often heard these days in the concert hall or recital room. These include the wonderful Variations and Fugue on a theme of J.S. Bach, op.81 dating from 1904. This work, based on a theme from the Cantata No.128, may well be regarded as Reger’s piano masterpiece. It is an enormous edifice consisting of 14 variations and a highly developed fugue leading to a massive peroration.
John Field has a certain degree of standing in our time: he is occasionally played on Classic FM! Many listeners were probably introduced to this music by the wide-ranging survey made by Míceál O'Rourke in the 1990s and issued on Chandos. Frank Merrick had preceded him with a complete cycle of Field’s music as part of this recording project. This included the Nocturnes and the seven piano concertos. The liner notes explain that these do not do composer or pianist justice. So only four examples have been included.
I was fascinated by the two CDs which feature all four (numbered) piano sonatas by Arnold Bax. I came to this music by way of Iris Loveridge’s Lyrita recordings. In later years, I picked up on Eric Parkin’s cycle for Chandos and finally Ashley Wass on Naxos. I have not heard the Michael Endres reading on Oehms Classics
It is a revelation to listen to Bax’s Piano Sonatas played by Merrick (for the first time). For me it is the missing link between Iris Loveridge and the age of digital recordings. Contemporary reviewers suggested that the sound recording quality of Frank Merrick’s Bax Sonatas was far superior to Loveridge. I would agree.
If I am honest, I would like to explore the various recordings of Bax’s piano sonatas in considerably more depth than time allows for a review – preferably with the scores.
Meanwhile, I am enthralled by Merrick’s rhapsodic approach to these powerful works. He is well able to provide the energy needed to convincingly present this powerful music whilst at the same time delivering ‘great delicacy’ where appropriate. Merrick can balance the Russian influence and complexities of Sonatas No.1 and 2, the nature worship and incipient impressionism of the Sonata No.3 and the concentrated and often terse lyricism of the Sonata No. 4.
The liner notes reveal that Bax told Merrick that ‘on reflection he preferred many of his interpretations to Harriet Cohen’s’!
Included in this collection is Bax’s subtly Ravelian Moy Mell: an Irish tone-poem for two pianos. The other pianist is Michael Round. Other Bax works include the idyllic ‘Hill Tune’, the Grainger-esque ‘Burlesque’, the ‘noisy little’ ‘Paean’ (dedicated to Merrick) and the lovely ‘Lullaby.’
Other English works featured on CDs 3 and 4 include an evocative performance of John Ireland’s Prelude No.1 ‘The Undertone’, Hope Squire’s Variations on ‘Black Eyed Susan’ and an imaginative playing of Alan Rawsthorne’s gnomic Four Romantic Pieces.
The final disc is reserved for music composed by Frank Merrick. The first selection is the inspired and often beautiful Eight Esperanto Poems. Merrick had become an adept in that manufactured language during his years as a conscientious objector. Five songs have been recorded here. They date from 1950. I was impressed by the purity and depth of mezzo-soprano Sybil Michelow’s voice. I wonder if Merrick wrote many songs? If so, they would be well worth exploring.
A major concerted piece is the ‘Seascape’ from the Piano Concerto No.2 which was composed in 1936. This atmospheric piece incorporates a Hebridean song ‘Chant of the Fisherwomen of Skye’. The entire concerto (along with No.1) is available on YouTube, however I do hope that one day it will be issued in a new CD version. It may not be the greatest example of the genre, but it certainly demands to be in the recorded repertoire.
Two Movements in Symphonic Form: A Completion of Franz Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony are a little bit of an enigma. They were ‘completed’ in 1928 with the composer using his own material. Merrick did not use Schubert’s sketches for the ‘scherzo.’ It is worth hearing for his creative use of Schubertian ‘characteristics’. At best, one could describe it as resourceful.
The other three piano pieces are of mixed interest. I enjoyed the enthusiastic ‘Bonny Blue Bell Variations on a Somerset Folksong’. On the other hand, ‘The Ocean Lullaby’ is not the dreamy piece of impressionism promised by the title. And finally, the ‘Hares on the Mountains’ is a dashing little three-part invention that does manage to present a musical ‘moving picture’ of the title.
As noted above 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. Unfortunately, Nimbus have not included the dates of every work presented. Some are cited in the programme notes, but they have not been included in the track listings. I know that it is easy to discover this information in reference books, online and in hard-copy but I do think it is an essential part of any CD package. The texts of the Esperanto poems have been included. Several photographs of Merrick at various stages of his life are featured throughout the booklet.
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.
Frank Merrick (1886-1981): A Recorded Legacy
For full track listing please see Nimbus webpage, as this is very long.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.