GREAT CONDUCTORS OF THE
CENTURY: ALBERT COATES
Albert Coates, cond; London SO;
Frida Leider (sop);
Lauritz Melchior (ten);
Berlin St Op O
EMI 75486, mono (2 CDs: 148:47)
Mephisto Waltz No. 1.
Symphony No. 2.
Procession of the Nobles.
Francesca da Rimini.
Tod und Verklärung.
Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla.
Magic fire music.
Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine journey.
Tristan und Isolde:
Isolde! Tristan!. O sink hernieder (abridged).
Hansel und Gretel:
Der Ring des Nibelungen:
Vocal and orchestral excerpts from
Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried
Albert Coates, Leo Blech, Lawrance Collingwood, Robert Heger, cond; Göta Ljungberg, Florence Austral, Florence Easton, (sop); Walter Widdop, Lauritz Melchior (ten); Friedrich Schorr, Rudolf Bockelmann (bar); Emil Schipper (bs); London S O; Berlin St Op O
GALA 100668, mono (4 CDs: approx. 300 mins)
Fred Gaisberg, artists and repertoire director of His Master’s Voice, was a pretty astute man. Among his many achievements were recording tenor Enrico Caruso before anyone had ever heard of him outside Italy (1902), then persuading such legendary stars as tenor Francesco Tamagno, baritone Victor Maurel, sopranos Nellie Melba and Adelina Patti, and violinist Pablo de Sarasate to make records. In the early 1920s, sensing a change in the quality of recordings—late period acoustic discs had a much wider range than their early-day counterparts, and he knew that electrical recording was not far off—he signed two orchestra directors to long-term contracts, a youngster named Ray Noble to direct the pop series and a veteran conductor, part Russian and part British, named Albert Coates to direct his classical recordings. As in the cases of the other names listed above, he struck a gold mine. At the time he signed Coates, the few high-profile conductors working regularly in England were the home-grown Henry Wood and Thomas Beecham, both of them signed to rival Columbia. HMV did have the young John Barbirolli, then not so well known, to accompany singers in arias, but Gaisberg knew he couldn’t keep running to Europe to get such luminaries as Bruno Walter or Leo Blech to make records (though they did trek to Milan to get Carlo Sabajno to record Italian operas), and he—along with many British record buyers—were getting antsy about wanting some heavier fare on records, particularly symphonies and the music of Richard Wagner.
Coates certainly qualified on all counts. Born in Russia in 1882 to a Russian mother and a British father, he came to maturity during the reign of Czar Nicholas II. He walked several miles through the snow to attend Tchaikovsky’s funeral, and in the early years of the 20th century he became one of Arthur Nikisch’s star pupils and, later, his assistant. Nikisch saw what he had to work with and smiled: Coates was a big, brawny man who sometimes let his emotions get the better of his technique. “You don’t need a baton, Coates,” Nikisch once said to him. “You need a bullwhip!” Disgusted and disillusioned by the Bolshevik Revolution, Coates left Russia and fled to England, where he quickly established himself as a first-rate conductor.
Between 1921 and 1932, Coates made literally hundreds of sides for HMV, including the first electrical recordings of the Tchaikovsky Sixth and Borodin Second Symphonies, the first complete Bach Mass in B Minor (the soloists included Elisabeth Schumann and Friedrich Schorr), lots of Tchaikovsky, an early but incomplete recording of Holst’s
(Coates had given the first public performance of the work in 1920), Ravel’s
The Fountains of Rome
(even beating Toscanini to the punch), and other works. Yet it was undoubtedly his long and distinguished series of Wagner recordings, using some of the greatest German and British singers of his day, that put his name on the map. Coates’s 1926 recording of Siegfried’s Funeral Music from
was the talk of the day among collectors, just as William Steinberg’s stereo recording of
was a famous test record of the early 1970s. It’s not on either collection above, alas, but you can hear it on YouTube if you wish. It’s not only beautifully recorded but stunningly performed. Coates combined a linear conception of music with the weightiness of Furtwängler. He was, quite simply, a great conductor. Moreover, W.H. Auden, in one of his articles, once said that he timed several of Coates’s performances of Wagner and compared them to the known timings of Wagner’s own preferred conductors at Bayreuth. Much to everyone’s surprise, it was Coates’s incendiary performances that came closest to the timings of Bayreuth’s original conductors, who probably followed the composer’s directions.
As time has receded from the Coates Era, however, it has been two concerto recordings that have kept his name alive: the Brahms Second with Arthur Rubinstein as soloist (1929), and the Rachmaninoff Third with Vladimir Horowitz (1930). In August 1932 he was in Seattle, where he conducted the world premiere of George Gershwin’s
Later that year, being homesick, Coates returned to the land of his birth for a few years. He came back to London around 1936 to produce performances of his opera
and also led the world premiere of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s cantata,
Dona nobis pacem
(October 2). A year later he conducted the music for a film version of
performed more as a stage play with occasional excerpts from the opera, starring Richard Tauber, Steffi Dana, and Diane Napier. In 1938 he moved to America where he worked in Hollywood both as a conductor (guesting with the Los Angeles Philharmonic) and actor (making two cameo appearances in MGM films). In 1945 he recorded for the first time since 1932, a new version of the Tchaikovsky Sixth Symphony for British Decca. Then he moved to South Africa with his new wife, and spent the rest of his life conducting in Cape Town. He died in December 1953, virtually forgotten.
Yet the astute reader will have noticed the strange gap: why were there no HMV recordings after 1932? All of a sudden, the label’s indispensable conductor for almost a decade became not only dispensable but ignored. Not one article or source on Coates I have ever read—and I’ve been trying to research him since the mid 1970s—has ever had an explanation for this. The soundtrack of the
film and the 1945 Tchaikovsky Sixth show that his skills had certainly not eroded. So what was the problem?
After decades of thinking it over, I believe I know what happened, even if HMV would never admit it. Around the time Coates went back to Russia, HMV and Columbia merged to form Electrical and Musical Industries, Ltd. (EMI). This meant that Thomas Beecham was now the property of HMV. Another Nikisch pupil, Adrian Boult, was signed to the label with the BBC Symphony; yet another Nikisch pupil, Václav Talich, also now made records for HMV with the Czech Philharmonic; Malcolm Sargent, who had been the music director of the D’Oyly-Carte Opera Company during the late ’20s and early ’30s, was now making concerto recordings for both Columbia and HMV; and the label even signed Bruno Walter and the Vienna Philharmonic. In 1935 Walter recorded the complete first act of
with Melchior and Lotte Lehman, and EMI even (secretly) recorded a complete
Tristan und Isolde
at Covent Garden in 1936 with Flagstad, Melchior, and Fritz Reiner. In addition, HMV scored a double coup when they signed both Furtwängler and Toscanini to the label. Why should they bother with Coates when they were now getting records from Beecham, Furtwängler, Walter, and Toscanini? EMI was now suddenly conductor-rich, and the only items in Coates’s repertoire that made him unique were possibly the Russian symphonists (Coates led the British premiere of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony in 1942). Had he stayed in England, he’d probably have remained on the label performing the same function as Sargent, making concerto recordings, but his sudden attack of homesickness put a serious dent in his career.
All of which is a shame because, as these recordings prove, Coates was one of the most exciting and vital conductors who ever graced a recording studio. There is nothing on these recordings that one could even call pretty good; everything conducted by Coates is superb. I purposely didn’t list all the contents of the Wagner set because it’s rather convoluted and would take up too much space, but as you can see Coates isn’t the only conductor (though he does have the larger share of the records). I haven’t heard this specific Gala release, but am rating it highly due to the contents, which are very similar to the seven-CD set I
have, issued in 1994 by Pearl, called
The Potted “Ring.”
The difference is that the Gala set doesn’t include anything from
so we lack Coates’s wonderful performances of the Norn Scene, the full prelude, lots of bleeding chunks including “Helle wehr” and “Welches unholds list,” Siegfried’s Funeral Music, and an Immolation Scene in which he split conducting duties with the rather bland Lawrance Collingwood (fortunately, Collingwood had only the first side or two; Coates had the ride-out). I might also point out that these recordings are also Hall of Fame material for the singing of tenor Walter Widdop, one of the most underrated Wagner tenors of all time, as well as Austral with her gleaming, silver sword of a voice, who is almost as forgotten as poor Coates. (You’ll also hear the fabulous recording of the
final scene featuring Lauritz Melchior and yet another great forgotten soprano, Florence Easton, albeit conducted by Robert Heger.)
I’m still waiting for someone to reissue Coates’s 1927 recording of the Mozart “Jupiter” Symphony on CD. It came out years ago on a South African label (Claremont), but that disc has also disappeared. Excerpts from the Bach Mass in B Minor have turned up on CDs devoted to Schumann and Schorr. I once owned the complete performance on 78s, and to be honest, Bach was not his forte; the performance was heavy-handed and leaden. But that was an anomaly. By and large, I can perfectly visualize the Coates described by one eyewitness, whipping his baton as if it were a toothpick in his massive hands, yelling at the orchestra, “Smash it, boy! Give it everything you got!” By golly, we need more Albert Coateses in this world!
Lynn René Bayley