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Eric COATES (1886–1957)
Orchestral Works, Volume 1
The Merrymakers, a Miniature Overture (1922–23) [4:32]
The Jester at the Wedding : Suite from the Ballet (1932) [24:34]
Dancing Nights, Concert Valse (1931) [7:20]
Ballad, Op.2, for String Orchestra (1904) [5:52]
Two Symphonic Rhapsodies on Popular Songs (1933) [9:34]
By the Sleepy Lagoon, Valse-Serenade (1930) [3:57]
London (London Everyday) Suite for Orchestra: Covent Garden, Westminster, Knightsbridge (1932) [14:07]
BBC Philharmonic/John Wilson
rec. 2019, MediaCity UK, Salford, UK
CHANDOS CHAN20036 [70:39]

For John Wilson, this first volume in a new series of the orchestral works of Eric Coates could be seen as a return to his recording roots. His debut discs for ASV of lesser known Coates marked him as a conductor with a special affinity for this music. Remarkably, those fine sounding discs are now over twenty years old but with good engineering, the ever reliable BBC Concert Orchestra in their element and Wilson's enthusiastic and empathetic conducting, they come up bright as a new pin. In the intervening decades, aside from a single disc from Rumon Gamba on Chandos (17 years old itself) and Barry Wordsworth with the LPO sumptuously recorded on Lyrita, which was probably recorded in the early 90s but the release of which was inexplicably delayed, Wilson has carried the torch for Coates pretty much alone. There have been single discs by him of varying repertoire on Dutton and Avie, but this series will bring all the music together in one place.

It is important to say these are all very fine performances indeed, performed with real zest by the BBC Philharmonic and if someone is looking to start collecting Coates' music there is probably no need to look further than this excellently engineered, generously filled disc. With 'light' music [an awful term that creates as much confusion and misunderstanding as anything else] two elements are key; unaffected alert interpretations and buoyant - indeed virtuosic - playing. Both are present in abundance here. There is a danger that sometimes performances can try and burden this essentially good-natured and life enhancing music with too much emotional weight. Tempo too is key. Coates was famously annoyed by conductors who played his music too slowly. One of his close friends, colleagues and preferred conductors was Alick Maclean - known as "The Lightning Conductor" – and I seem to remember reading once a contemporary quote to the effect that "you can never play Coates too fast!" The downside - if downside it is - is that his writing for orchestra requires a high level of skill as well as providing real interest in the part writing that is unusual in much other light music, which can be too often attractive melody with perfunctory accompaniment. Suffice to say that Wilson's touch is ideally light [pun intended]. None of the music sounds rushed but it positively bubbles along. Likewise, Wilson's phrasing is affectionate without being indulgent. Time and again there is a sense of absolute rightness which is a joy to hear.

By no means is Wilson the only conductor to have ever had empathy and success with this music. I still have a real affection for Sir Charles Groves' recordings with the RLPO. They suffer now from a rather brightly-lit EMI/Phase 4 recording but they have immense vigour. For the same label there was a companion disc with Reginald Kilbey and the CBSO which, although incomplete on LP, introduced me to the Jester at the Wedding Suite included here. All of those performances - excepting the Jester excerpts – can still be found on a very good value CFP 2-disc set through the usual 2nd hand suppliers. Missing the mark slightly is the aforementioned Gamba also on Chandos also with the BBC PO. This was titled "The Symphonic Eric Coates" and to my ear that is where it goes wrong. The style of the disc is too 'big' and chosen tempi a fraction too broad. Remember that Coates' full orchestra was not symphonic in the opulent 20th Century meaning of the word. As an aside - and in apparent contradiction of that statement - Coates wrote a critique in the 1940s of the performance of light music where he lamented the use of small not symphony orchestras for the performance of this repertoire. But I wonder if this was as much to do with the perceived stature and technical competence of such bigger groups rather than a need for a lusher orchestral texture.

As he became more famous so he added 'luxurious' instruments but his famous London Suite included here is just scored for 2 (II=picc).1.2.1 - 2230 - timps – perc (2) - harp - strings. Worth further noting is that the strings would mean usually a chamber orchestra scale of a few desks each rather than anything larger. The Chandos engineering for this new disc also seems to be less rich and bass heavy than some - again to the music's benefit. Relatively unusually for light music composers Coates' skill as an orchestrator - not just a melodist - is key to his success. The genre of music was published - and played - in every conceivable arrangement from solo piano via palm court trio and seaside pier orchestra up to the 'full' orchestrations given here. Coates always sounds best with the full versions.

Every work offered here is a delight. The disc opens with the sparkling The Merrymakers - Miniature Overture. For me this 1922 work marks the point when Coates moved from an earlier - still attractive - Edward German-influenced style towards something reflecting the energy and syncopation of the 1920s. The 1930s are the decade in which Coates cemented his fame and the consistent quality of his music up to the beginning of World War II is remarkable. The bulk of the music presented here is from that decade and gives us examples of all the styles of music for which he was most famous; the Waltz, the Suite (including his wonderfully vivacious marches) and the song-ballad. Another feature of the performances where Wilson is spot-on is his handling of rhythm. Coates was rather scathing of the 20s & 30s enthusiasm for American swing and jazz. He preferred 'syncopation'. In performance this means avoidance of any kind of swung jazz-triplet feel but rather a vivacious but slightly more held pointing of the many off-beat rhythms. Of course Wilson - as evidenced with his recordings with his superb own orchestra - can swing with the best, but he knows not to here. It’s a little, quite subtle musical effect, but one that adds to the sense of rightness that runs throughout these performances. Another compelling feature is the tightness of the BBC PO ensemble and the rhythms they play. Knightsbridge March is a brute for the strings to keep the double dotted rhythm going without losing precision or ensemble - it is perfectly achieved here. If you want to compare Gamba with Wilson this march is ideal; Gamba is perfectly good but by being some 30 seconds slower and with those rhythms less articulate, the cumulative energy of this stunning march is dissipated.

A quick mention for one of the other enduring 'pops' included in this volume 1. By the Sleepy Lagoon', for any British listener, has become synonymous with the longest running radio programme in the world; "Desert Island Discs". This in turn has led to the misapprehension that the lagoon in question must be of some Pacific Ocean atoll. In fact it was inspired by the view from Coates' home on the south coast of England looking across from Selsey to the twinkling night-time lights of...... Bognor Regis. As a not unrelated aside - the pre-release publicity by Chandos made great play of the fact that these recordings used new performing editions by Wilson. Curiously the liner accompanying the disc makes no mention of this at all - I for one would be very interested to know quite what this entailed and the differences it pointed up. I expect that in the main it has meant generating conducting scores from individual parts (nearly all light orchestral works were published with 'just' piano conductor scores to allow cross-cueing of any missing instruments) and thereby eliminating any inconsistencies of phrasing and dynamics and accidentals that arise from this slightly simplified process. For Sleepy Lagoon Wilson uses the falling muted trumpet triplet early in the piece that is so familiar from the radio theme version but not in the original version of the score. I remember Ernest Tomlinson recounting how he added that to the orchestral parts en-route to sessions with the Slovak RSO as part of the Marco Polo "British Light Music Classics" series. Most recordings include that falling figure - not Barry Wordsworth and the RPO or Malcolm Nabarro and the East of England Orchestra though, or indeed the historical recording of Eric Coates' own conducting from 1948. What no other recordings do, is to inflect the triplet with a tenuto lengthening of the first note and a slight pushing through the remaining two. Another tiny detail but again absolutely 'right' in its feel. In his biography of Coates [In Town Tonight pub. Thames 1986] Geoffrey Self mentions that there was some trumpet writing in the 6th and final movement of The Jester at the Wedding that was removed by Coates prior to publication as being too hard for the available players. A fairly cursory comparison with the 2 other recordings I have - Boult and Nabarro - suggest that there is no 'extra' part writing in this new recording - I wonder why not. Interestingly, Boult proves to be a very dynamic Coates conductor too - although sadly not in Knightsbridge which is far too slow. So it is left to Nabarro to play nearly every section of the Jester substantially slower. This score may not be vintage Coates but I like it a lot and especially so here.

With the luxury of being able to choose, I might just opt for the last extra drop of lushness extracted by Wordsworth in the Two Symphonic Rhapsodies where the larger scale Lyrita soundstage plays to the unusual - for Coates - sweep and grandeur of these song arrangements. They are gloriously overblown and I love them. The one time I wish Wilson had indulged the tempo a little more was the central Meditation of the London Suite. Here Coates not only shows his unquenchable facility for melodic invention but plumbs a deeper emotional depth than usual. Naturally it is beautifully played here by all, including the orchestra's principal cello, but I would have enjoyed a fraction more space and time.

John Wilson's capacity for producing studio recordings of real flair and brilliance is remarkable and furthered by this very auspicious Volume 1. The Chandos liner is interesting and informative - editorial details aside - and the Chandos engineering is in their best tradition; dynamic, detailed and rich. It will be interesting to see how Wilson's interpretations have changed over the years when he comes to rerecord items included in his earlier releases. I might be in a minority, but a little more detail as to the editorial emendations would not go amiss. Overall, though this is a stunning start to what will surely be a life-enhancing series of discs.

Nick Barnard

Previous reviews: Brian Wilson ~ Ian Lace



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