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Eric COATES (1886-1957)
Suite: The Three Men (The Man from the Country; The Man-about-Town; The Man from the Sea) (1935) [23:19]
Concert Valse: Dancing Night (1932) [8:12]
Two Symphonic Rhapsodies: I Pitch my Lonely Caravan; Birdsongs at Eventide/I Heard You Singing (1933) [5:06; 5:19]
Idyll: Summer Afternoon (1924) [3:53]
Ballet: The Enchanted Garden (1946) [21:11]
Concert Valse: Footlights (1939) [5:50]
Suite: Four Centuries - IV Rhythm (20th Century) (1942) [6:57]
March: London Bridge (1934) [4:31]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Barry Wordsworth
rec. 1990s? DDD
LYRITA SRCD.213 [76.19]

This new disc of Coates’s music is accompanied by excellent notes by the composer’s biographer, Geoffrey Self - who also wrote the entry on Coates in Grove’s dictionary. These are supplemented by insightful quotations from the composer’s son, Austin.
Coates began his career by studying the viola at the Royal Academy of Music (RAM) with Lionel Tertis, the greatest viola player of his time. However, he had also brought a few compositions with him, which were noticed by Sir Alexander Mackenzie, the Principal of the RAM. Seeing great potential, he advised Coates to also study composition with Frederick Corder. Coates went on to become one of the leading viola players of the day, second only to Tertis, eventually securing the post of leader of Henry Wood’s Queen’s Hall Orchestra. However, like Holst, he began to suffer from chronic neuritis and when Wood did not renew his contract in 1919 he stopped playing the viola altogether and turned to full-time composition.
His contract with his publisher required works of brief duration in a more popular idiom. As result there is little of real substance in his output, which consists in the main of popular songs, marches and symphonic rhapsodies but no symphonies, concertos or operas. Coates was an early advocate of jazz and, together with the famous band-leader Jack Hylton, was at the forefront of incorporating jazz and syncopation into light classical music. However, this meant that his compositions were generally derided and ignored by music critics.
On this disc we have a representative mixture of this output including a number of suites, an idyll, a march, two symphonic rhapsodies and a ballet.
The suite, The Three Men from 1935, opens the CD and is a good example of the seamless intermingling of styles of which Coates was master. The first movement opens in Gilbert and Sullivan fashion, the second has elements of the 1920s ‘big band’ sound, whilst the suite ends in true nautical fashion (The Man from the Sea) with a rendition of “Johnny comes down to Hilo” and “Three blind mice”. The profusion of baroque-like fugal material and expert counterpoint reflects the excellent grounding in composition that Coates received at the RAM.
The next item, Concert Valse: Dancing nights of 1932, epitomises the cross-over music of the 1930s when Coates frequently rubbed shoulders in the concert hall with more so-called serious composers. I doubt whether it would ever gain a place today - not highbrow enough. However, it is beautifully scored and performed flawlessly and with great panache.
Coates was keen on re-using material and in the two Symphonic rhapsodies he made use of two tunes each from his popular songs of the 1920s. The first has an extravagant Wagnerian opening, which is quickly transformed into music of a Puccinian dimension before settling down to a more reflective mood. By contrast the Second rhapsody is more tender, lush and romantic with a strong ending. Coates had mastered many idioms and the musical transitions are handled expertly by Wordsworth and the LPO. The following work, the Idyll, Summer Afternoon is another good example of the many facets of Coates’s style, beginning with a Delian summer afternoon by the river but soon transforming into a climax of which Tchaikovsky would be proud and then back to Delius again with a quiet reflective ending.
The most substantial work on this disc, the ballet The Enchanted Garden is Coates’s longest single movement at 21 minutes. The text was written by his wife and is simple and straightforward. It is full of glorious music. The motto theme, a “menacing brass figure” (slightly syncopated) opens the piece and is used to great effect to underpin the more dramatic elements of the story. For a glimpse of Coates’s orchestral writing virtuosity, just listen to the Straussian passage at about 4 minutes in! One sometimes wishes, with all these waltzes, foxtrots and ragtime “will the real Eric Coates please stand up” as so many styles are absorbed and transformed! However, he does add his own personal stamp in the syncopation and dance band elements which aren’t to be found in many other composers of this period; Gershwin being perhaps the only other example. The piece finishes with a delicious romantic melody as the Prince and Princess are re-united and the evil forces dispersed before fading gently away in a Delian mist.
Another pleasing, but somewhat inconsequential work, Concert Valse: Footlights (1939) follows; the sort that Coates could undoubtedly turn out in his sleep. The performance is brilliantly handled.
The penultimate piece on the disc, the last movement of the Suite: Four centuries is archetypical Coates, full of percussion, syncopation, big band saxophony and muted brass. Again, how easily and eagerly the LPO assimilate the style! Although there are similarities with American music of the 1920s, it is important to remember that Coates is not a mimic, he was a - if not the - pioneer.
The most famous item is undoubtedly the last piece on the disc, the march London Bridge (the theme of “In Town Tonight”), an exuberant, brash, bustling, no-nonsense march which could only have come from the pen of Eric Coates. It is his equivalent of Elgar’s Cockaigne (“In London town”) with which there is a certain similarity. It concludes with a Sullivanesque combination of the two main themes. A superbly brisk and zippy performance.
Throughout this disc one is frankly amazed by the virtuosity and panache of the LPO in music which cannot be familiar - as it may be for the BBC Concert Orchestra. Despite the often fast tempi the LPO are never caught out and consistently deliver. Coates himself would have been proud of these performances, as he tended to push things along when conducting his own music - as he was often invited to do in the 1920s and 1930s.
Although some classical music lovers may tire after a while of the rather superficial nature of much of the music and the inability to achieve real intensity of feeling, hearing it played by a fine symphony orchestra is, at times, a revelation. What a pity Coates’s music has been consigned to the scrap-heap and is now rarely if ever programmed, unlike the more popular music of the more “serious” composers.
This is a highly enjoyable disc, expertly played and interpreted. It certainly grew on me after second and subsequent hearings. Strongly recommended for those who are not irredeemably and irreconcilably prejudiced against “light” classical music and who enjoy their music superbly crafted and played!
Em Marshall

see also reviews by Rob Barnett and Jonathan Woolf



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