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Eric COATES (1886 -1957)
Historical recordings 1926 to 1940
By The Sleepy Lagoon - Symphony Orchestra, 1940
Summer Days Suite- New Queen's Light Orchestra, 1926
Wood Nymphs - Valsette - The Queen's Hall Light Orchestra, 1926
The Jester at the Wedding - Symphony Orchestra, 1934
Symphonic Rhapsody on "I Pitch my Lonely Caravan" - Symphony Orchestra, 1933
Symphonic Rhapsody on "I Heard You Singing" and "Bird Songs at Eventide" - Symphony Orchestra, 1933
London Suite - Symphony Orchestra, 1933
Summer Afternoon - Idyll Symphony Orchestra, 1934
Cinderella - A Phantasy - Symphony Orchestra, 1935
London Bridge - March, 1934
NAXOS 8.110173 [59.53]

It was a great idea of Naxos to produce a single disc of a selection of Coates' orchestral works conducted by himself. The tight knit group of Coates' proselytising fans will be cock-a-hoop and many more of a certain generation will go weak at the knees with nostalgia at hearing this music, reminding them of the heyday of radio, the medium that made Coates' music so well known. Not only is the content nostalgic but the sound too. The majority of the recordings on the disc were made between 1933 and 1935 and there are the tell-tale playing characteristics of the period, particularly the effortless (but always judicious ) use of string portamento - the hint of sliding between the notes. There is also that unmistakable recording sound associated with 78s. Having said that, the sound, on the whole, is as good as you can get for the time thanks to the acoustic and to the expertise of the Columbia studios where most of the music was recorded. Even the two works recorded earlier in 1926 in non-studio conditions, although inferior, are still very acceptable. Naxos has generally achieved a relative uniformity of sound and seems to have got hold of original records in excellent condition from which to re-master.

After Coates was sacked by Henry Wood from the Queen's Hall Orchestra as principal viola in 1919, he increased both his composing and conducting activities. The conductor Stanford Robinson said, "Eric was very good at conducting his own works. He was always neat and immaculate and having been an orchestral player himself, he didn't bully the orchestra; however, he was always in control." Not only did his playing experience benefit his conducting but also his compositions. Coates said that as a viola player he had sawed through so many boring parts that he was determined to write inner parts that were interesting to play. This shows in the craft of the music. Just as Mozart's particular attention to inner parts lifts his works another notch on the quality scale, so it is with Coates in his field of light music

However, whatever the quality, there were enough musical snobs around during Coates' lifetime for him to suffer for being a "light music" composer. When Elgar wrote in the genre he was disparaged for stepping down. Yet Coates was in some ways his own worst enemy by reinforcing the notion of a separate style, sometimes defensively; "When you listen to [music]….by a genuine composer of the Light Orchestra School, it all sounds so easy, so spontaneous, but in all probability has taken hours of concentrated thought on the part of the writer to give you that impression". But writing light music was what he always wanted to do. Whereas Elgar occasionally stooped to the field, Coates never had any ambitions to step up and as a result he became the big fish in the pond, the undisputed "King of Light Music". Elgar knew his worth and much admired the Summer Days Suite and the fact that he made a point of studying the score suggests he felt he had something to learn from Coates. Performed here in one of the earlier 1926 recordings, it is easy to see why.

The Summer Days Suite has a range of orchestral riches, the central gem being the marvellous oboe solo in the middle movement, played so intoxicatingly yet unpretentiously that when I heard it the 1926 background hiss faded from consciousness.

Coates has a very relaxed, but not necessarily slow, way with the more romantic and pastoral music. The Sleepy Lagoon, so familiar as the signature tune for one of the world's longest running (and still going strong) radio programmes - Desert Island Discs, is certainly the sleepiest rendering I've heard.

However, on the whole Coates has a brisker approach to tempi in his music than most other conductors, and when it comes the fast marches he can wind up a spine tingling excitement.

Such excitement shines through in the recording here of the London Suite and no wonder if you know the circumstances of its recording. Sessions had been booked at Columbia to record the two Symphonic Rhapsodies (featured here). Coates had at his disposal a band of crack musicians who were basically Beecham's newly formed London Philharmonic out to earn a spot of extra cash. They dispatched the Rhapsodies with 50 minutes of session time left (as Coates had hoped) and he then took a gamble by handing out parts of his newly composed London Suite. After one run through each, the first two movements (designed for two sides of a 78) were in the can. Time was running out when they sight read through the longer Knightsbridge March and hurried straight on to a take. The equipment failed. With uncharacteristic charity the players then stayed on for one more go and it was caught on disc. This is what we hear and knowledge of the recording circumstances adds a real sense of frisson. Spontaneity shines through a performance of music that the players had neither heard nor seen less than half an hour before. From a historical angle the disc is worth having for this alone.

The Knightsbridge March is another piece made famous by being taken on by a long running radio programme as its signature tune - In Town Tonight. There is much music on the disc though that will be little known to those who are only familiar with Coates through a few famous radio tunes and the Dam Busters´ March (not featured here - Coates never recorded it). The Cinderella Phantasy is a symphonic poem in all but name and contains an astonishing range of mood and texture. In the one vocal number, I Pitch My Lonely Caravan there is a chance to hear the Hon W. Brownlow, the authentic voice of an extinct species - the English high baritone.

There are a number of compilations of Coates music on disc but although they benefit from modern sound, they are not necessarily better played. For example, Sir Charles Groves RLPO version of the Knightsbridge March cannot match the excitement and commitment of that 1933 Coates recording even with full blown stereo. So this is a winner of a disc that is full of angst-free music that is good for you by a composer of impeccable craft and real melodic talent.

John Leeman

See also Coates Website

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