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Eric COATES (1886-1957) Songs
Kathryn Rudge (mezzo-soprano)
Christopher Glynn (piano)
rec. 2018, The Turner Sims Concert Hall, Southampton University, UK SOMM RECORDINGS SOMMCD0192 [66:05]
A slightly unexpected disc from SOMM. They specialise in exploring unfamiliar repertoire and British music in particular, but until now have not been drawn towards the works of any of that group of composers of works known collectively, and slightly disparagingly, as ‘Light Music’. This disc is a valuable corrective with over an hour’s worth of songs by one of the greatest composers within this genre, Eric Coates. It is a particular pleasure to hear the care and clear artistic engagement of musicians of the stature of mezzo-soprano Kathryn Rudge and pianist Christopher Glynn and they are backed up by the reliably excellent engineering and production that I have come to expect of this label.
But to be fair, this level of performing excellence is also to be found in the pre-existing similar recitals. There are two main ones to be considered; Brian Rayner-Cook’s survey for ASV accompanied by Raphael Terroni from the mid-1980s and then Richard Edgar-Wilson with Eugene Asti on Marco Polo from a decade later. All of which means that it has been over twenty years since the last full recital of Coates’ instantly appealing and melodically memorable songs. Clearly Coates chimes with great artists since some of his songs, such as ‘Bird Songs at Eventide’, ‘I heard you singing’ and ‘I pitch my lonely caravan’ appear on numerous ‘songs-my-mother-taught-me’ type collections by singers of the calibre of Ben Heppner and Thomas Allen, let alone historical greats from Tauber to McCormack.
As it happens the 3 albums are all worth having and although there is some repertoire overlap in terms of content, and varying style, there are enough differences to allow enthusiasts to collect all of them without too much hesitation. The main compare-and-contrast interest is hearing these songs sung by a baritone and a tenor as well as by Rudge’s dramatic mezzo. The contributions of the three pianists are exceptionally high – all skilled, sensitive and imaginative but also quite different. Terroni is witty and alert, Asti ideally responsive to the natural ebb and flow this style of song requires and Glynn powerful and sweeping. Kathryn Rudge’s contribution to a recent disc of Elgar’s orchestral songs for SOMM was the highlight of that excellent collection and those good impressions continue here. Her voice is even and powerful, her long-phrased breath control a real boon in spinning out Coates’ lyrical lines. Her diction is excellent – full texts (in English only) are provided but they are not required, such is the clarity of the words. In this she is helped by an ideal balance between voice and keyboard. The SOMM team are old hands at using the Turner Sims Concert Hall at Southampton University and frankly it shows. The main trump card of the new disc over its predecessors is the quality of the recording; the new disc is detailed full and rich with both the earlier collections less than demonstration-worthy in engineering terms.
Rudge does have a big voice, and this is not always to the benefit of every song. Coates was writing in a style that can teeter between the sentimental and occasionally the twee and for these songs a lighter, straighter voice can often reap the greatest rewards. In this aspect Edgar-Wilson’s light-toned tenor is excellent. His other great strength is his intuitive understanding of when to let these songs flow forward and when pull back. Few of these markings are in the piano scores but he phrases them beautifully. Both he and Rudge include the two ‘cycles’; The Mill o’ Dreams and Four Old English Songs with very different approaches and results – generally Edgar-Wilson is more reflective, Rudge more urgent, with the consequence that Edgar-Wilson feels more intimate whereas Rudge is painting broader strokes for the concert stage. Rudge’s approach works very well in the emotionally ‘bigger’ settings – notably the three songs mentioned above. One oddity, is that in Coates’ rumbustious faux folk-song ‘Reuben Ranzo’ Rudge chooses not to rhyme ‘Reuben’ with ‘you been’ which sounds wrong. Rayner Cooke is excellent in that song and indeed the other ballads in this style which were such money-spinners for Coates – for example he includes the roistering ‘Stonecracker John’ which would be slightly odd sung by a woman. But one of the great successes of all of these albums is that none of the singers ‘perform down’ to these songs.
Rudge includes the song version of ‘Sleepy Lagoon’ with a lyric added, after the orchestral work’s success, by band leader Jack Lawrence. With the exception of his Shakespearian Four Old English Songs Coates was quite happy to use ‘lesser’ wordsmiths, but even by that standard Lawrence’s verse is pretty banal. Of minor interest is the fact that the lyric reinforces the misapprehension that the titular lagoon is on some south-sea paradise whereas in fact the original was inspired by the twinkling lights of Bognor Regis viewed from across the bay in Selsey (Coates’ home). Perhaps because the lyric grates, I did not particularly enjoy this version – though that is no fault of Rudge – and such was the song’s popularity in the 1940s that its inclusion in such a recital as this is only to be expected. The disc closes with the ardent ‘Rise up and reach the Stars’ and the valedictory ‘Homeward to You’. The lyric to the latter was written by Rodney Bennett (father of the composer) and his brand of sentimental nostalgia brings out the best in Coates.
As a song writer, indeed in all his music, Coates was able to draw on a remarkable melodic store – there are several really fine tunes here. The piano writing is often little more than harmonically supportive, with the melody doubled in the right hand. Once in a while he breaks free of that relatively simple style, but it is important to remember that Coates was writing the bulk of these songs as a very commercial enterprise. They were intended for the amateur musician to hear on the radio/in the concert hall and then buy their own copy to sing for pleasure at home. No point in alienating your prospective clients with fistfuls of technically demanding piano writing. This target market also explains Coates’ use of a fairly straight forward strophic style with little variation in the accompaniment between verses. As with so many of these ‘Light’ composers Coates knew to perfection what would be effective, and he wrote accordingly. For sure, some of these songs do now seem a little dated in their style and musical aspiration but the best of them are perfect examples of how even relatively simple music can touch the soul.
Presentation is up to SOMM’s usual high standard as well. Jeremy Dibble provides a good liner although given his usual level of musical detail I was sorry that he did not choose to offer musical insights into Coates' song style and composing characteristics. He does mention that the composer was annoyed that as his life progressed the division between ‘serious’ and ‘light’" music became more marked, with Coates arguing (quite legitimately) that it took just as much skill and effort to write in either genre – Dibble could have explored that idea perhaps. Likewise, the note is biographically a little light; it is always worth remembering that Coates was the leading violist of his day – becoming Henry Wood's principal player in the Queens Hall Orchestra and hence these songs frequent programming in the early years of the Proms – and their complete absence ever since.
All credit, then, to SOMM and Kathryn Rudge for her committed passionate singing and Christopher Glynn for his very fine piano playing which combine to remind us that Eric Coates’ songs are an enduringly appealing and significant part of his musical legacy. Not a disc to replace existing recitals but one to place alongside and enjoy.
Little Boy Blue (1924) [1:39]
Sleepy Lagoon (1930 words added 1942) [3:19]
I pitch my lonely caravan at night (1920?) [2:02]
Bird Songs at Eventide (1926) [2:44]
The Scent of Lilac (1954) [2:39]
The Fairy Tales of Ireland (1918) [4:07]
The Mill O'Dreams - a cycle of four little songs (1915) [8:08]
Dreams of London (1927) [2:34]
Song of the Little Folk (1925) [2:12]
Reuben Ranzo (1911) [2:46]
Sea Rapture (1924) [1:58]
The Green Hills of Somerset (1916) [2:58]
Always as I close my eyes (1929) [2:06]
Tell me where is fancy bred (1912) [2:51]
Four Old English Songs (1909) [7:46]
Our Little Home (1917) [2:54]
I heard You singing (1923) [2:44]
By the North Sea (1919) [2:12]
At Daybreak (1909) [1:55]
Stars and a Crescent Moon (1932) [2:13]
Rise up and reach the Stars (1933) [1:43]
Homeward to You (1928) [2:21]
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