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Jonathan Woolf
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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 9 in D minor Choral Op.125 (1822-24)
Madame Salteni-Mocchi (soprano); Edna Thornton and Nellie Walker (altos); Frank Webster (tenor); George Baker (bass)
Chorus and Symphony Orchestra (probably LSO)/Albert Coates
rec. October-November 1923, London
Symphony No. 9 in D minor Choral Op.125 (1822-24)
Elsie Suddaby (soprano); Nellie Walker (alto); Walter Widdop (tenor); Stuart Robinson (bass)
Philharmonic Choir; Symphony Orchestra (probably LSO)/Albert Coates
rec. October 1926, London

As I wrote in my review of Pristine Audio’s transfer of Albert Coates’ electric recording of it [PASC296], the mighty Choral symphony, rather like Mahler symphonies, offered quite a challenge to the youthful recording studios. Yet even the acoustic horn didn’t shy away from the challenge. In Berlin, in 1923 and on 14 shellac sides, Bruno Seidler-Winkler, recording pioneer, directed the forces of the Neues Symphonie-Orchester in pursuit of his goal. Even earlier, in 1921 - though the task was not completed until 1924 - Frieder Weissmann led the Blüthner-Orchester, Berlin, in the Ninth, though in one of those twists beloved by 78 lovers, duties for the finale were taken over by the German Opera House Orchestra and chorus under a completely different conductor, Eduard Mörike. Even more delightfully, and confusingly, two completely different sets of takes were issued, representing different recordings made over the years by these forces. In between all this, Anglo-Russian volcano Albert Coates nipped into the London studios to set down his own recording with the Symphony Orchestra, a bashfully anonymous band which was probably the LSO.

This is the recording restored in the first disc under review. Things were different back then. For some reason Edna Thornton was unavailable on the second date of her recording and her place was taken by the almost-as-redoubtable Nellie Walker. Not for the first time on records - and not for the last time either - a role was split between singers. Though Thornton was the better-known, Walker left an impression and it was to her that Coates and HMV turned when the work was electrically recorded three years later. Madame Salteni-Mocchi was the only non-British singer, whilst Frank Webster and George Baker were stalwarts, though the latter’s technique is sketchy at best. They all sing in English. I believe the chorus was an eight-voice one, though one should remember the reduced number of instrumentalists, so it’s not as silly as it may seem. The recording was made over four days in October and November 1923. Bass reinforcements were naturally in use, to stiffen the lower frequencies. What’s interesting to note, considering the acoustic and electric recordings is that, rather unusually, it’s the earlier one that’s slightly more expansive; each movement, bar the third, being slightly more long-breathed. Not by much, it’s true, but worth noting nevertheless when discussing relative speeds of early recordings.
Orchestrally there’s a relatively small complement of violins, and they’re sometimes made to scurry hard by Coates. The winds are largely vibrato-free. For the time a lot of percussion detail and indeed lower brass writing comes through well. Side-joins have been well accomplished in this transfer. There are a few pops and clicks but no scratches; the copies are nice sounding, HMVs. It’s a good piece of restoration and makes a historically useful adjunct, or sonic and interpretative appendix, to the better known later recording.
As for that one, this time the studio recording was electric, working via microphone, not the recording horn. The orchestra was again, probably, the LSO. The results remained formidable and dynamic, hugely involving and intensely rousing. His dynamic accelerandi, the speed of a greyhound out of the traps, animate the second movement and reveal graphically his seismic approach. It is never grammatically misplaced however, indeed it generates a similar kind of focused energy as Toscanini was later to do on disc in his cycles - and Coates is by no means slower than the Italian. The slow movement is vital, fluid and forward-moving, and not unmoving in its way, especially since Coates is capable of vesting the music with a vocalised cantilever that never fails to impress. The finale is launched with predictable vehemence - an intensity that prepares one for the riches to come. The vocal quartet is fine; Walter Widdop, that sterling Handelian and Heldentenor is at his penetrating best; Elsie Suddaby deploys her crystalline purity to considerable effect. The two lesser known names are those of contralto Nellie Walker, back again and thankfully not plummy, and Stuart Robinson, who is laudable too. The choir is the Philharmonic Chorus, trained by the expert Charles Kennedy Scott. They made a number of recordings together, much valued to this day. In any case Coates was used to directing choirs and one of his most interesting recordings, made the previous year, was of Bax’s Mater Ora Filium with the Leeds Festival Chorus. I should note that 38 seconds between the first and second sides of the slow movement has been ‘filled’ via Weingartner’s later recording of the work. Transfer engineer Bill Anderson has done this, presumably, to cover the cut made in Coates’s recording. It’s not very noticeable, though I know it won’t be to purists’ tastes.
I can’t be sure whether HMVs or Victors were used for transfer but they sound good - possibly Victor Z or maybe Orthographic pressings. There’s more surface noise retained than on the rival Pristine, but it’s certainly listenable. As ever there’s just a card insert and no notes. Still, Coates Completists now have free reign to indulge their passion.
Jonathan Woolf

Masterwork Index: Beethoven 9