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Coates merrymakers 8555178
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Eric COATES (1886-1957)
The Merrymakers (A Miniature Overture) (1923) [4:36]
London Suite (London Every Day) (1932) [15:00]
Cinderella (1929) [15:46]
The Selfish Giant (1925) [11:03]
London Again Suite (1936) [17:11]
Calling All Workers (1940) [3:22]
The Dambusters March (1954) [3:56]
Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, Adrian Leaper
rec. 10-13 February 1992, Concert Hall, Slovak Radio, Bratislava, Slovakia.
NAXOS 8.555178 [71:26]

There is much to feel depressed about. As I write this review, death and destruction seem to be dominating the news agendas: Russian troops are massing at the borders of The Ukraine and the world is holding its breath to see if an invasion follows; the full extent of the Tongan tsunami is only just beginning to emerge; and that’s before we even mention the global pandemic and its associated effects on mental health and financial security. Yet I feel strangely elated, unrelentingly cheerful, and hugely optimistic. How is it that I have apparently been able to shrug off so completely the woes of the world, as well as my own personal worries? The answer lies in the music of Eric Coates and in this jolly CD.

Back in the early 1990s when this was first issued on the Marco Polo label, the world was full of optimism. The internet had just been invented and we were all thinking that it would bring the whole world together for the good of all, the Cold War was over, the Soviet Union was collapsing, and nations long subjected to oppressive rule from outside, were gaining their independence; Slovakia itself became a fully independent sovereign state not long after this recording was made. Of more immediate interest in this context is the fact that the CD medium, approaching its tenth anniversary, had opened windows to a wealth of music previously unrecorded (and largely unperformed). Nobody had opened more windows on to the hitherto hidden expanses of musical wonders, or made access to those windows more easy, than the Naxos label, which launched its superbudget discs (in the UK they were retailing at about a third of the price of the major competitors) and made them available by selling them, alongside releases of its earlier stablemate, Marco Polo, in places nobody had previously thought of being suitable for the sale of classical CDs; my all-time-favourite Marco Polo disc was bought when, sipping my morning beverage, I browsed a rotating rack of Naxos releases in a tiny backstreet coffee shop in Brisbane.

According to its own catalogue, Marco Polo is a label specialising in “rarities drawn from the period 1850-1940”, but while the music of Eric Coates certainly fits the chronology to a tee, it might seem surprising that a composer whose music is among some of the most familiar in the world, could be described as a rarity. But we forget the extent of musical snobbishness in the late 20th century, and the complete contempt with which many in the classical music world looked on Coates, his tunefulness, and his unfailingly cheerful music. There may have been financial reasons why Marco Polo called on a Slovakian orchestra to record this archetypically English music, but without any collective disdain for a popular tunesmith or, presumably, preconceptions as to what constituted “good” as opposed to “popular” English music, they turned out to be the ideal champions, blending a seriousness of purpose with a powerful sense of joy and enthusiasm, giving everything an atmosphere of musical respectability one doubts it would have got from a major British orchestra at the time.

While the two London suites, with their hugely colourful and jolly outer movements and charmingly affectionate, if occasionally sentimental, central ones are well known - and both Calling All Workers with its famous central trio and The Dambusters March are probably the two most famous examples of Coates output - the other pieces on the disc are a little less well known. But all exude great good cheer and infectious optimism. This may be music without great emotional depth or that sense of angst which most mid-20th century composers felt was obligatory, but it has a truly profound effect on the listener’s spirit and is capable of absorbing the listener long after the final notes have faded away. Can we say that about many of the works whose composers are treated with more serious respect by musicians and music lovers?

Adrian Leaper, who was a stalwart of the Naxos/Marco Polo catalogues in the 1990s, is a conductor to be reckoned with in this repertory, and he guides his Slovakian players with a clear and purposeful approach, which prevents the inherent lightness in the music from becoming mere superficiality. The result is that we have a disc of popular Coates works, which show their allegiance to Elgar, Walton and, maybe even Strauss (“Mayfair” from the London Again Suite), Debussy (the impressionistic opening of The Selfish Giant), and Gershwin (the march in The Selfish Giant) . This is good music by any standards, and the fact that Coates melodies embed themselves so strongly in the consciousness that you not only keep singing them long after you have heard them, but they change your whole perspective on the world and its problems. We have probably never needed Eric Coates’s unique brand of musical optimism as we do now, so I cannot recommend this jovial disc too highly.

Marc Rochester

Previous review: Rob Maynard

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