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Albert COATES (1882-1953)
Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1926)

Oberon: Overture (KH, 25th October 1926)
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)

Mephisto Waltz no. 1 (KH, 14th October 1930)
Alexander BORODIN (1833-1887)

Symphony no. 2 in b (KH, 5th-6th November 1929)
Nicolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)

Mlada: Procession of the Nobles (KH, 14th October 1930)
Piotr Ilych TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)

Francesca da Rimini, op. 32 (KH, 9th-10th October 1930)
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)

Sorochintsy Fair: Gopak (KH, 23rd October 1929)
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)

La Valse (QH, 26th March 1926)
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)

Tannhäuser: Overture (KH, 16th September 1926), Das Rheingold: Entry of the Gods, Die Walküre: Magic Fire Music, Götterdämmerung: Siegfried’s Rhine Journey (QH, 26th January 1926), Tristan und Isolde: Love Duet* (Berlin, 13th September 1929, KH, 6th May 1929)
Engelbert HUMPERDINCK (1854-1921)

Hänsel und Gretel: Prelude (KH, 26th October 1926)
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)

Tod und Verklärung (KH, 12th October 1928)
Berlin State Opera Orchestra (first part of Tristan extract), London Symphony Orchestra (all others)/Albert Coates
Dates and locations as above (KH = Kingsway Hall, London, QH = Queen’s Hall, London)
Great Conductors Of The Twentieth Century Vol. 17
EMI CLASSICS/IMG ARTISTS CZS 5 75486 2 [2 CDs: 79:03+78:48]

 

When I was an impressionable young schoolboy, with a mania for both music and for second-hand bookshops, I picked up (in 1967, I see) "The Orchestra Speaks", a rather famous study of some of the conductors who were around in the 1930s by Bernard Shore, long-serving principal viola of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. A few of them – Boult, Barbirolli and Sargent – were still very much with us. Others – Beecham and Toscanini – were, in a sense, living presences still, for their records dominated the catalogue. Others again – Koussevitzky and Mengelberg – were legendary names that were always quoted when conducting was discussed. But Albert Coates, born in St. Petersburg in 1882 of an English father and a Russian-born mother of English parentage, was a virtually forgotten figure. Yet what Shore had to say about him certainly sounded interesting:

"A man of immense proportions and commanding person; with the drive and power of a superman … his intense, warm-blooded temperament gives an unmistakable character to his performances … Russian music … takes on a vivid and arresting character in his hands, with restraint cast off and pent-up feelings allowed to run riot … the performance will have an intense feeling and grip that only a Russian can effect … Yet he is capable of exquisite tenderness and extreme delicacy … Half-tones and half-measures are not found in him … No music he plays will ever be dull. Everything will be intensely alive, and shot through with emotion and fire …" (Bernard Shore: The Orchestra Speaks, Longmans, Green & Co. 1938, pp. 77-82).

Occasional attempts have been made to revive his recordings, of which he made a great many in the 1920s and 1930s (for reasons not fully explained he faded out of the recording scene and ended his days in South Africa, where he died in 1953), especially his famous Wagner extracts, but this is my first opportunity to explore his art, and it has been fascinating to find that Shore’s words have completely stood the test of time.

First of all, though on paper his claims to be Russian may be thin, his manner when conducting Russian music is firmly in line with that of, say, Mravinsky, with a similar ability to stretch the orchestra to its limits and beyond (far beyond, I’d say, considering how lacklustre the LSO could sound at this epoch) with fanatically brilliant string playing (only in Tod und Verklärung are there some dodgy moments), screaming wind and no-holds-barred brass. Yet at the same time he could coax exquisite poetry from his woodwind soloists and wonderfully pliant expressiveness from the strings (but be prepared for at least as much portamento as with Mengelberg). All the Russian pieces here are superbly involving, but it was cunning to start the programme with Oberon since its tenderness, delicacy and wit (as well as vitality of course) immediately counter any idea that Coates’s music-making might prove gutsy and energetic but not particularly subtle.

Coates was also remembered as the conductor who perhaps recorded more Wagner than any other in the days when a recording of a complete opera by that composer was still only a pipe-dream. The Tristan extract, in spite of being pieced together (very well) from two sessions and venues, still shows what savage cuts had to be accepted those days, but it also shows what a powerful surge of emotion Coates could create. All the Wagner extracts make their mark with mighty climaxes and gentle poetry, and much the same can be said of the Humperdinck and Strauss pieces. My only reservation concerns the Ravel, too intensely Russian in concept and lacking those Viennese inflexions of which André Cluytens above all knew the secret.

But never mind, this is just one track and the rest will surely stimulate a desire to hear more; his Pathétique, for instance, or his Beethoven 3 and 9. The recordings are as good as can be expected of their dates and anyone with any curiosity about past styles (though, apart from the portamento, there is nothing stylistically dated about any of these performances) will rapidly forget the sound as they get caught up in some thrilling music-making.

Christopher Howell

Great Conductors of the 20th Century



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