Sunday, 1 September 2013

The Definitive Eric Coates - Eric Coates conducts his own compositions

Ian Lace, in his excellent review of this Nimbus release, considers who will buy this set of CDs. He wonders if ‘this superbly crafted music, so full of vitality and romance [will] appeal to audiences below the age of say, sixty.’ Well, I have not yet reached that magical age, but I have loved Eric Coates as long as I can recall. I first consciously heard his music at a concert at the end of the pier in Llandudno with John Morava conducting. I think it was the ‘Merrymaker’s Overture’. Through all the vicissitudes of Boulez, minimalism, Stockhausen and aleatory music, I have remained a fan of Eric Coates. 

At school, I was often ‘teased’ by more learned and intellectual friends for liking such ‘persiflage’ as the London Suite and the Three Elizabeth Suite. And this ‘superiority’ from some ‘music-lovers’ has continued down through the years. Much as I care! This 50-something-year-old would swap reams of pages of Mahler, Verdi, Bruckner and Wagner (especially Wagner) to possess the complete orchestral works of Eric Coates on my Desert Island.  I guess that somewhere in the recesses of the classical public’s collective psyche there is a steady interest in so-called ‘light music.’ For example, I am convinced that the Guild Light Music series (which now exceeds a hundred CDs) is not selling only to OAPs!

This present collection of seven CDs covers the entire corpus of Eric Coates’ music recorded by the composer –from 1923 until the late ‘fifties.’ I have not done a detailed cross-check between the track listings and Coates’ catalogue but I guess that all the well-known suites and marches are presented along with a wide variety of more obscure, but equally enjoyable pieces.  Naturally, there is considerable duplication within these seven CDs – for example there are three full versions of the fine London Again Suite, a similar tally for ‘By the Sleepy Lagoon’ and five of the ‘Knightsbridge March’. Many works have only a single performance here– for example, ‘High Flight’, the ‘Holborn March’ and the delicious ‘Footlights-Concert Valse.
Some of the highlights are the lesser-known works. How often does the delicious tone-poem ‘Summer Afternoon’ feature on CDs or radio broadcasts? This is a work that crosses over into something that Delius might have written. Two ‘Fanfare’s’ dating from 1943 are heard on the second disc. I have not encountered these extremely short numbers before. The ‘Moresque’ dance is included twice here – once in an early Coates performance and the other conducted by Charles Williams.  The Cinderella- Phantasy is an attractive work that seems to have slipped in between the crack in today’s concert scheduling. It is an ideal ‘prom’ work if there was ever one. There are a handful of Coates’ songs set for orchestra, including ‘Bird Songs at Eventide’, ‘I heard you singing’ and the Symphonic Rhapsody on ‘With a Song in my Heart.’
Finally, it is good to have all the marches composed for the nascent television companies in one place. These include the ‘Television March’, the ‘Music Everywhere- Rediffusion March’, the ‘Sound and Vision – the A.T.V. Television March’ and the ‘South Wales and West- Television March’ (originally the Seven Seas March)
There are a few works missing, for example the early ‘Ballade’, the ‘Rhodesia March’ and the unpublished ‘Coquette’. Virtually everything else is present and correct in one form or another. In total there are some 8 hours 50 minutes of listening.

Included in the final ‘bonus’ disc are a series of rare recordings of Coates’ music played by a variety of dance bands. It is a treasure trove, indeed. There is a very early version of ‘From the Countryside’ by the Peerless Orchestra made around 1918. It is a surprisingly good transfer.  Other ‘outfits’  presented here include Jack Hylton and his Orchestra’s splendid rendition of ‘Rose of Samarkind’, Charles Williams conducting the Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra, the Cedric Sharpe Sextet with a ‘palm court’ rendition of ‘Lazy Night.’  Sydney Torch and his orchestra play the relatively rarely heard ‘Holborn March’, whilst the RAF Central Orchestra performs the equally rare ‘Over to You’ –March written in 1941 and recorded the following year. The final work in this collection is the ubiquitous ‘The Dam Busters March’ from the Central Band of the Royal Airforce. It is a fine conclusion to an outstanding collection of music.  

Every commercial recording that Eric Coates made is given here, however it appears that two are ‘missing.’ Alan Bunting has suggested that ‘Covent Garden’ and ‘Westminster’ from the London Suite which were recorded in 1933 are not present in their original form. This is because they were later re-issued with another catalogue number. Bunting has compared the wave analysis of both recordings and has declared them to be identical, in spite of the records being released 14 years apart.

All these tracks have been re-mastered to an extremely high standard. The ‘acoustic’ numbers (issued in 1923) have been placed at the end of disc six: these are worthy of our attention, in spite of the early technology used to master the original. It amazes me just how much detail is present on these early transfers. The ‘electrically’ recorded tracks are superb in their presentation: often I found it hard to believe I was listening to something ‘laid down’ more than sixty or seventy years ago.
Alan Bunting has written that he considered ordering the track in strict chronological order, however he decided to present the material in a way that is varied an enjoyable. It was a wise decision, as each disc can be approached as a ‘concert’ in its own right. It would have meant that the opening discs of the boxed set would have had the least technically impressive tracks. Furthermore, repetition of pieces on the same CD, even on adjacent tracks, would have been inevitable.
I listened to these seven discs on my music-room ‘hi-fi’ system which is far removed from the gramophones of the pre and post war years. I did want to upload them to my iPod for future listening. Alas, the track names are not yet recognized by the ‘Gracenotes’ media database. And, as there are 130+ tracks, it would take a long time to fill in a manually. I hope that Nimbus will submit the track details PDQ as this will be essential listening for me during my travels.

Anyone interested in Eric Coates will own the precious few books by or about him. The primary text is the composer’s own Suite in Four Movements, most recently republished by Thames in 1986. In the same year Geoffrey Self’s book In Town Tonight – a Centenary Study of Eric Coates was published. This book is now hard to find.  The most recent addition to this short list is the important study by Michael Payne – The Life and Music of Eric Coates which was published by Ashgate Press in 2012. It was based on his University of Durham thesis (2007) ‘The Man Who Writes the Tunes’. Payne has provided a major essay which is included in the liner notes. It runs to some 27 pages and is essential reading for all enthusiasts of Eric Coates music. The main thrust of this essay is the composer’s work in the recording studio with a wealth of subsidiary information and anecdotes.
Another insert provides a detailed track listing. This includes the date of recording, the record and matrix number (s), the performers (which are not always the same as noted on the original record label) and the place or recording when known. Additional information includes the date of composition and the duration.  For anyone with a subscription to The Gramophone journal archive, it is possible to track the critical reviews of many of these records as and when they were released. 

This is an essential purchase for all enthusiasts of Eric Coates in particular and British Light Music in general. It offers virtually a complete compendium of his orchestral music. The ‘recommended retail price’ is £29.99 (£21 if ordered from MWI) which makes it about £4.00 a disc. It is unbelievably good value for money. There is nothing about this release that I can fault. It is one of the recording highlights of my classical music-listening life. What I would have given for this back in the early ‘seventies when I first discovered Eric Coates music... 

Track Listing:
Eric COATES (1886-1957) All of his commercially released recordings 1923-1957 plus bonus CD of Eric Coates compositions conducted by others. 
Track Listing and samples at Nimbus website
NIMBUS NI 6231 [7 CDs: 08:50:00] 

With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared

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