Volume 1: Russian Favorites
The London Symphony Orchestra
The London Symphony Orchestra
To most classical fans, the very thought of a prim and proper English gentleman conducting full-blooded Russian blockbusters has about as much appeal as the 101 Strings playing Jimi Hendrix. Sure, the English do fine with madrigals, Mozart and Mendelssohn, but for stronger stuff, like Tchaikovsky, Wagner or Stravinsky? Not a chance! Except, that is, for Albert Coates, whose wildly energetic readings of the late romantics still pack an enormous wallop.
Coates's ability to cross national boundaries with such ease was destined from the very start. Born of British parents in St. Petersburg in 1882, Coates studied both in England and Russia. In 1904, he became a student of Artur Nikish, the most dynamic conductor of his age. Under Nikish, Coates's own vitality flourished. Coates was a large man and reportedly worked up an enormous sweat on the podium with his wild, demonstrative gestures; legend has it that Nikish once told him that he should use a whip rather than a mere baton to express his feelings.
Amazingly enough, Coates seems to have been fully accepted and held in great esteem by the highly dissimilar English and Russians, between whom he divided his career. The chauvinistic English regarded his pedigree and temperament as sufficiently native to entrust him with many important premieres, including the first public performance of Gustav Holst's most popular work, The Planets, of which Coates's pioneering recording is heard on the second of the Koch volumes. The Russians were equally impressed and appointed Coates chief conductor of the Imperial Opera, where his reputation was so strong that following the revolution he was appointed head of the new state opera. That he could conduct the British works with proper reserve and yet lead the Russian ones with unbuttoned abandon, and was able to gain the respect of both pre- and post-revolutionary Soviet society testifies to his truly cosmopolitan credentials.
Although Coates recorded prolifically, little of his work has been transferred to either LP or CD. On the basis of what little we have, he emerges clearly as one of the very greatest and most individualistic interpreters of his time. Nearly every piece on the Koch sets bursts with unrestrained vitality, worlds apart from the polite, well-balanced performances of our time. In works having highly differentiated sections, such as the Liszt, Borodin and Tchaikovsky on the Koch sets, Coates deliberately collides extremely fast and slow tempi, caring nothing for seamless transitions and creating enormous structural melodrama. He recklessly accelerates the Dvorak and Glinka into dizzying climaxes. And yet he revels in the weighty but colorful orchestration of the Elgar arrangement of Bach (complete with harps!), Wagner and Rimsky-Korsakov.
This is fascinating stuff, but regrettably only hints at what Coates could do with more extended pieces. The Marche Slav is superb, easily the finest performance ever recorded, but whets our appetite for what Coates could do with a complete Tchaikovsky symphony. The two Firebird excerpts are marvelous, but we can only imagine how Coates would have whipped up the climax into an overwhelming frenzy. And his compelling Don Juan and Death and Transfiguration suggest that Coates was one of the few conductors who could have held together one of Strauss's diffuse and bloated longer works.
Either of these volumes is fine, although the first (a single disc) is probably the safer recommendation; while Coates does a fine job with the wide-ranging repertoire on the second volume, it is in the fiery slavic material that he makes a stunning impression. A consumer note: each disc lasts over 75 minutes, and while the surface noise is occasionally heavy (even for originals of this vintage), it is all of the steady static variety which can be easily disregarded, rather than 78 rpm swishes and gouges, which are far harder to ignore.
Apart from the Koch sets, the only currently available Coates performance seems to be his amazing 1930 reading of Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto # 3 with Vladimir Horowitz as the soloist, included as part of EMI CDHC 63538 (3 CDs). CD reissues of two other Coates readings would be especially welcome. The first is the love duet of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde with Frida Leider and Lauritz Melchior, last available on Angel LP COLH-132, which explodes with torrents of raw orgiastic passion. The second is the finest of all interpretations of Borodin's Symphony # 2, recorded in 1929 with the London Symphony Orchestra, last available on Past Masters LP PM-11 that included as a bonus a 1920 (!) performance of Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy; although reduced to chamber proportions for the acoustic process, the orchestral color and powerful climaxes come through with amazing clarity and represent our only indication of Coates's affinity for one of his very favorite modern composers.
But what of Coates's legendary recordings of the deep melodrama of Tchaikovsky's Symphony # 5 or the swirling coloristic kaleidoscope of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade? Coates's natural affinity for such works must have produced absolutely stunning results, but the 78s have never been reissued. Hopefully, the present sets will sell sufficiently well for Koch or some other enterprising label to dig these up.
Now that Koch has so proudly served up the appetizers, can't we please taste a main course?
2003 update: I'm pleased to report that my appetite is now slightly sated. Despite significant overlap with the Koch sets, EMI's volume of its Great Conductors of the Twentieth Century has the Borodin Symphony # 2, a Tchaikovsky Francesca da Rimini and the 1929 Tristan und Isolde Love Duet with Melchior and Leider. Biddulph 014 has a fine Tchaikovsky program consisting of a 1928 Romeo and Juliet Overture" and 1932 Symphony # 3 ("Polish") and Hamlet Overture. But I still hunger for other work by this fascinating conductor.
Copyright 1992 by Peter Gutmann
copyright © 1998-2003 Peter Gutmann. All rights reserved.