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Eric COATES (1886-1957)
The Three Elizabeths Suite (1944) [19:24]
Four Centuries – Suite (1942) [21:23]
The Three Bears – A Phantasy (1926) [9:27]
The Dance of the Orange Blossoms (The Jester at the Wedding) (1932) [3:52]
The Three Men – Suite (1935) [13:31] Albert COATES (1882-1953)
Suite from the Dramatic Music of Henry Purcell (1921) [9:59] Edward ELGAR (1857-1934) Variations on an Original Theme‘Enigma’ Op 36 (1899) [30:42] Nöel COWARD (1899-1973)
London Morning (orch. Gordon Jacob, 1959) [34:15]
New Symphony Orchestra of London/Eric Coates (Eric Coates)
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Malcolm Sargent (Albert Coates, Elgar)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Geoffrey Corbett (Coward)
Rec. 1949-1959 ELOQUENCE 484 0190 [68:06 + 75:14]
This well-filled two disc set is another product of Universal mining the Decca archives to produce a diverse programme of familiar recordings. Archival interest is very much where these discs lie with the engineering audibly showing its seventy years and the performances having a definite sense of period as well.
Eric Coates’ own performances of his music with the New Symphony Orchestra of London constitute the first CD. Peter Quantrill in his very good liner explains the context of both the composer and the works. He also makes the point that Coates was an excellent interpreter of his own music – unfussy, but pragmatic and dynamic. Recording age aside, this is a very good introduction to Coates’ music with all the scores benefitting from the effervescent brio of the conducting. The most famous scores - London, London Again, Dambusters, By a Sleepy Lagoon are all absent from this collection but this is balanced by two of Coates’ most substantial and impressive scores; The Three Elizabeths and Four Centuries suites. Both these suites receive genuinely scintillating performances which underline just why Coates has remained enduringly popular when other ‘light’ music composers have fallen into relative obscurity.
Of course in recent years John Wilson has enthusiastically taken up the cause of these scores in brilliant and idiomatic new recordings which echo the style and panache of these older versions although I do not think he has yet recorded either of these larger suites – perhaps they are planned as part of the ongoing Chandos survey. In fact there have not been that many recordings of either suite complete. There were two discs from Malcolm Nabarro and the East of England Orchestra on ASV that were neat and alert – Nabarro caught the syncopating final movement of Four Centuries very well as well as the heroics of Halcyon Days from The Three Elizabeths. I must admit the skill and intricacy of Coates’ scoring benefits from a modern recording so I would personally always want to hear recent performances no matter how authoritative the older ones. That said, Decca/Eloquence have come up with a very good transfer. Nimbus released a multi-disc set of all of Coates’s own commercial recordings that was praised for the quality of the transfers. I have not heard that set but I did know these performances from two double-disc sets released by Conifer. Those discs sound as if they were transcribed from original 78’s with a fair degree of resultant surface noise and distortion. The Decca transfers are far warmer with little or no obvious disc noise. Apart for a typical period boxiness, the sound is very good for its time with no great audio difference between the 1949 and 1953 sessions.
Perhaps the relatively lighter scoring of these works does not overload the recording in a way that does cause more technical issues on the Malcolm Sargent recording of Elgar’s Enigma Variations. These were recorded at another 1953 session with Albert Coates’ [no relation] suite of Purcell the original coupling. The dream recording team of John Culshaw producing and Kenneth Wilkinson engineering were responsible for the technical aspects of this recording. Given that Culshaw would start recording the famous Solti/Ring just five years later in audio that still sounds excellent, the sonic limitations of this Enigma are quite surprising. Quantrill also relates that the LSO were somewhat underwhelmed by Sargent. The result is a recording that is of interest primarily if not only to admirers of the conductor. This is a perfectly good but rarely memorable Enigma. The more reflective variations come off best with a gently understated lyricism and Nimrod is impressively held and dignified. But neither the engineering nor the playing come anywhere close to what is expected today so without interpretative revelations there seems little worth in resurrecting this perfectly decent but ultimately unexceptional performance. The original LP coupling was conductor Albert Coates’ five movement Suite from the Dramatic Music of Henry Purcell which was arranged in 1921. There is a certain musico-archaeological interest in excavating both this suite and the manner of the performance given by the LSO strings under Sargent here. The playing emphasises weight of tone and heavy string contact. Quantrill notes how Coates adds a modulation halfway through the closing Finale to add musical drama to an already rather epically played section. One point of interest – the opening movement is none other than the Rondeau from Abdelazar which of course is the theme Britten used for his Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. Quantrill suggests that Britten knew the theme from the Coates Suite rather than the Purcell original. As mentioned the LSO play with fervour but oddly little sophistication or finesse so again this feels rather like an historical curio rather than anything else.
The final work is an original ballet by Nöel Coward called London Morning. It is easy – and quite wrong! – to dismiss Coward as ‘just’ a tunesmith of pretty but ultimately forgettable melodies. Along with Novello – another composer too easily dismissed – Coward was one of the great British composers of operetta where melody above all else is key. Crucially with this ballet, the great Gordon Jacob is credited as orchestrator. My guess is that in fact Jacob’s role was much more significant across the work’s thirty four minute span. No doubt Coward furnished the themes and probably the shaped the simple but effective narrative but I doubt he had the compositional technique to fashion a coherent and logical (and danceable!) score from his own themes. The work was commissioned by London Festival Ballet [now English National Ballet] in 1959 to mark their 10th anniversary. The piece takes place in front of the gates of Buckingham Palace where various distinctive Londoners and tourists pass by during a day out in London. This is of course a gift for creating a series of ‘character pieces’ for soloists, small groups and an ensemble all of which are portrayed colourfully and effectively in the score. There are a smattering of familiar popular and nursery tunes mixed in with Coward’s original inventions all of which culminate in a grandiose apotheosis featuring London Pride. This is the latest recording in the collection dating from the year of its first performance in 1959. The conductor here is Geoffrey Corbett who was London Festival Ballet’s conductor at the time so presumably he was recreating the score he had already conducted in the theatre. I had never encountered Corbett’s name before so found the following biographical note online intriguing; “Corbett was a rather famous conductor and musical orchestrator as well as being a life-long Communist from the early 1930s. He conducted the Vic Wells Opera Company at the Old Vic Theatre, London, leading the orchestra in performing a ballet for the orchestra by Gordon Jacobs.... After leaving the services at the end of World War Two, Corbett became musical director for the Rambert Ballet in 1949 and then conducted for the London Festival Ballet. From around 1950, perhaps as a defensive response for his career, arising from the pressures associated with the Cold War, Corbett moved from the highly public profile of conducting to orchestration.”
As an aside – reading of the connection with Jacob and Corbett’s own skill as an orchestrator I wonder if he was the ‘missing link’ in creating a performing score from Coward’s thematic basis? Before finding the above information, it was clear to me that Corbett had produced a highly effective and suitably characterful version of this slight score. I only know one other version of this work – Robin White conducting the City of Prague Philharmonic. That recording has the benefit of a reasonably recent modern/digital recording but it patently lacks the theatricality and panache that Corbett brings. The 1959 Decca recording is probably the best of the set – although I still wonder how London Decca did not have access to Vienna Decca’s technology by then! – but it is still audibly a historical recording and the potential buyer will need to decide whether the sonic limitations are a price they are willing to pay to hear this charming but rather inconsequential piece.
I do enjoy the presentation of these Eloquence discs; reproducing the old LP covers is a little touch of nostalgic pleasure, the liner is well written and useful and the remastering makes the most of the original source recordings. I suspect Eric Coates collectors will know these performances from other versions of these justly famous recordings and they will have favoured transcriptions. The Sargent recordings I doubt I will ever listen to again – not because they are bad but I cannot think of any reason to choose these performances of this repertoire over others. Corbett’s Coward does deserve attention if only to remind one of the numerous ballets and their associated scores that briefly shone in the dancing firmament before disappearing often forever. Nick Barnard
3 May 1949 (Eric Coates: The Three Bears, Dance of the Orange Blossoms, The Three Men), 5–7 January 1953 (Albert Coates, Elgar) Kingsway Hall, London, UK; 3–4 February 1953 (Eric Coates: The Three Elizabeths, Four Centuries) Decca Studios, West Hampstead, London, UK,; 1959 (Coward) Decca Studio 1, West Hampstead, London, UK,