ALBERT COATES

1882-1951

Often in the Twenties when symphonic recordings weren’t conducted by Leopold Stokowski the name on the label was Albert Coates. “A tall magnificent fellow of undisputed genius,” HMV producer Fred Gaisberg remembered, “I can see him conducting Prince Igor at the Maryinsky with those all-embracing gestures, his features glowing with pleasure and excitement.” And critic Andrew Porter, who as a young man played organ in Coates choral performances: “He had a marvelous way of inspiring you to give more than you thought you could – throwing his head back, breathing, seeming to draw all the breath of the choir and orchestra into himself.” Then came the exhalation! The music pours off of Coates’ old recordings with assorted London orchestras – in that howling, dashing (and delicate!) Francesca da Rimini of Tchaikovsky; in the dangerous bustle of the Mars bit from Holst’s Planets which sounds a veritable picture of anarchy; in the Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla from Wagner’s Rheingold in which the lower strings burrow like a hundred highly motivated spaniels before the starting gun so-to-speak releases the smooth-flowing Rainbow theme, the Rhine lapping below.

And then there’s the brisk-breezy-brassy Death and Transfiguration of Richard Strauss, the performance “with the gong” as venerable record collectors like to put it, not unfondly, this being a reference to the fact Strauss’ tam-tam strokes before the final rise to a climax are initiated more lustily by Coates than the score directs, and his tam-tam’er is still bashing away with unique bravado about ten strokes on, as if the music were mimicking some supernatural Big Ben or wheeling into a phantasmal Coronation Scene out of a Boris Godunov cleverly touched up by the next conductor in this volume, the lately-mentioned Leopold Stokowski. Strauss’ Don Juan is the benefactor not only of Coates’exhilaration but an imaginative way with orchestral texture allowing us to hear more easily than we often do, during the tone poem’s tingling second theme, the lovely lapping of harp strings on the sonic beach.

A zealous liner notes writer has proclaimed Coates’ Beethoven Eroica to be uniquely faithful to Beethoven’s metronome marking, 60 dotted halves to the minute, in the first movement. Well, truth in labeling requires me to say that while Coates reaches that number now and then his base speed is closer to 56, and there are notable chunks of reduced speed, as in the horizon-eyeing second theme and the beginning of the development, all this simply reminding us that the Full Sixty is not all that practical. One doesn’t want to hurl notes like cannon fodder into the orchestral malestrom without the protective coating of graceful pacing. In the Eroica scherzo, wherein Beethoven figures 116 beats to the minute will produce an ample allegro vivace, Coates races past Toscanini, Koussevitzky, even Henry Wood, to go for broke at 144. As a result the music is, well, RUSHED, but rather fun too, I have to admit. This movement is much more elemental than Beethoven’s opener and can take more punishment. Coates in that opener is certainly exhilarating but seems in flight from fifty angry creditors.

Speaking of tempo, Coates is terrific in the third movement of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique, his earlier recording thereof, treating us to a gorgeous ritenuto (aka, big drop in tempo) in the recapitulation of the second subject of this scherzo-evolving-into-march. In the wake of much craning of the orchestral neck the martial element is released here at a triple forte, ribbons flying, and Coates who’s been lickety-splitting at 176 beats (as opposed to the composer’s requested l52) is suddenly down to 116, yes, a drop of sixty beats to the minute, the happy result being that we seem to behold a glorious scene newly emergent — this movement is full of arrivals! — in some epic fairyland ballet.

Albert Coates was half-Russian, born in St. Petersburg of an expatriate English father and a Russian mother. A precocious chap, he made a debut of sorts when, aged 6, he fled the boredom of a children’s party, found solace in extemporizings at a lonely piano and was overheard, and blessed, by a white-haired gentleman who chanced into his hiding place –this, as you will have guessed, was the composer of Francesca da Rimini himself. A few terms in English schools and Coates was off to Leipzig where he played cello in the Gewandhaus Orchestra, catching “stick fever” in short order from its mesmerizing conductor Arthur Nikisch – as indeed, a number of other conductors-to-be did too.

Coates wasn’t yet 30 when he was conducting at the Maryinsky. Then with the complications of de-imperialization he left Russia and commenced his shuttles — he was a great traveler – that took him from the London Symphony to the Rochester Philharmonic to the Liceo in Barcelona and so forth, even back to Russia. During World War II this seeming phantom who’d made so many records in the 1926-32 period surfaced in Los Angeles, conducting the Philharmonic vacated by an unwell Otto Klemperer and arranging the score of a heady Hollywood epic – this of course was a time of good relations between the U.S. and Moscow — called Song of Russia. He finished his career in, of all places, South Africa.