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Douglas COATES (1898-1974)
Violin Concerto in D major (1934) [25:07]

Violin Concerto (1937-41) [32:58]
Colin Sauer (violin), BBC Northern Orchestra/Sir Charles Groves (Coates)Alfredo Campoli (violin), BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult (Moeran)rec. live BBC broadcasts 15 March 1951 (Coates); 1954 (Moeran), mono, historical sound. ADD

Not only was the Violin Concerto of Douglas Coates unknown to me before receiving this disc for review. I also confess that Iíd never heard of the composer at all.

Details of his life and career are given in the admirable booklet notes. However, in brief, he was born in South Yorkshire and, doubtless inspired by a very musical father, became involved in local musical activities from an early age. He flourished principally as a church organist and choirmaster. By 1924 he had moved to London. Almost certainly this move was connected with his employment with what was then the Midland Bank with whom he stayed throughout his working life. Itís quite possible that the move was not voluntary for in those days - and, indeed, until comparatively recently - British banks would move their staff round the country at will and often at very short notice. Coates continued to be very active as a conductor and composer in the London area until his death.

I approached this concerto with no little curiosity, hoping that Divine Art have restored to circulation a neglected masterpiece. I donít honestly think that claim can be made for it, however. Undoubtedly the concerto has flaws. One of these is the balance of the piece. It consists of three movements, the first of which plays for 15:38. The two succeeding movements take 4:57 and 4:32 respectively. This means that the whole weight of the musical argument is skewed towards the opening movement. According to Lewis Foremanís excellent notes the conductor of this performance, Sir Charles Groves, was critical of this imbalance and, to be honest, I think he may have had a point.

But thereís much to admire in the long, sonata-form first movement. It opens promisingly with a nice thematic idea. Iím not entirely convinced that the succeeding material is as memorable. But the music is undoubtedly ardent and also confident in tone and the soloist is kept busy with a mixture of singing lines and brilliant passagework. Colin Sauer makes the best possible case for the music. Indeed, he is a most accomplished advocate. Heís balanced pretty close so one can appreciate the accuracy, technical command and sheer commitment of his playing. I also relished his purity of tone, which is not even compromised by the most demanding of swift passages. The orchestra is balanced rather in the background and itís not always easy to hear whatís going on. The scoring sounds somewhat thick in places but this impression may be due to the recording itself. Itís a pity that, despite the best endeavours of the restoration engineers, more detail doesnít emerge for the orchestra is clearly an important protagonist in the work. As it is, I think it would have benefited the overall structure of the piece if Coates had pruned the first movement somewhat. Itís rather to long for its own good and there were times when I asked myself exactly where the argument was going. Perhaps Coates might have revised the work after hearing what I assume was its first professional performance - this recording was made for his benefit, it seems - but he was acutely disappointed by the reaction to the piece at the BBC and it seems that he may well have destroyed the work, which is a great pity.

One thing that crossed my mind as I listened was to wonder who, if anyone, advised Coates on the technical aspects of the violin. Did he have someone who fulfilled for him a similar function to that carried out by W.H. Reed when Elgar was composing his concerto? The point is relevant since it doesnít appear from the notes that Coates played the instrument himself yet to me, as a non-violinist, the writing for the solo instrument, whilst challenging, sounds to have come from the pen of someone who knew what he was doing and who understood the capabilities of the instrument. This is evident not least in the substantial cadenza in the first movement (from 12:10 to 14:55). Coates also wrote a sonata for the violin but I donít know if this preceded the concerto.

The second movement is aptly described in the notes as "a charming but slight interlude." I found this movement somewhat frustrating in that no sooner has Coates established a good lyrical flow than he brings the movement to an end. What there is of it is promising but the ideas are insufficiently developed in the movementís short span. The same is really true of the finale, which is vigorous and busy but itís too short-winded and rather seems to run out of steam.

I canít help wondering what would have happened had not Coates been so discouraged in the aftermath of this very performance. Might he have benefited from the experience of a broadcast professional performance and revised the concerto? Of course, that may be presumptuous on my part. Perhaps, had he been satisfied with the experience of the performance, he would have rested content with the concerto in this form. Idle to speculate, I suppose. And since the performing materials are now lost, it seems, this will probably be the only chance that we shall ever get to hear it and for that, despite the reservations Iíve expressed - which others may not share - we should be thankful. On one point there can be no dispute: Colin Sauer is a fine advocate of the work and, in fact, itís hard to think that Coates could have been better served.

Committed advocacy is also the order of the day in the accompanying performance of the Moeran concerto. This, at least, is better known than the Coates though itís nowadays a rarity in the concert hall. However, there is the fine recording made in the late 1980s for Chandos by Lydia Mordkovitch and Vernon Handley. Miss Mordkovitch is a rather passionate player but by the side of Campoli in this 1954 live performance even she seems a trifle reticent. Campoli lavishes on the piece his gorgeously full tone, husky at the lower end of the violinís compass, thrillingly bright in alt. Moeran was, of course, a violinist himself and he appears to have had a full understanding of and sympathy with the instrument.

As Andrew Rose perceptively comments in his note, "the Moeran Concerto has a joy to it". It teems with expansive, rhapsodic writing for the soloist. The long singing lines in the first movement suit Campoli very well but he also tosses off the stretches of demanding passagework with élan. Itís an intense reading and I relished the great warmth in Campoliís playing.

The second movement is a volatile jig and Campoli is in full command of all the pyrotechnics. The concerto ends not with a conventional display piece but with a long, soulful lento. Again Campoliís playing is passionate and full-toned: in his hands the solo line dips and soars like a bird in flight. The movement comes to a serene conclusion and itís just a pity that the recording canít quite cope with the last climax without distortion. Overall, however, the sound is not too bad and the orchestra is certainly better reported than is the case in the Coates piece. At times the recording distorts when the volume is loud but in general one can hear that Sir Adrian Boult is providing good, characteristically understanding support.

Some may find Campoliís approach too intense. Iím not sure this performance is one for everyday listening but his conviction and technical assurance disarm criticism, I find. The concerto is diffuse in parts but Campoli, caught on the wing in this live performance, sweeps all doubts aside. Itís a bravura reading.

I congratulate Divine Art on their enterprise in making available one unknown work and one largely unknown performance of a slightly more familiar concerto. The transfers sounded well on my equipment and the documentation is exemplary. English music enthusiasts should certainly investigate this fascinating release.

John Quinn

See also review by Rob Barnett


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