Is He the Greatest Recording Era Conductor You’ve (Probably) Never Heard Of?

It was Ray Edwards – at the time buyer for Tower Records’ legendary, late, lamented classical department on West 4th and Broadway – that recommended I check out the recordings of British-born, Russian-raised conductor Albert Coates (I believe we’d been talking about the ever-popular “Toscanini vs. Furtwängler” debate and my having come down decidedly on the side of Willem Mengelberg).

I did – and was mightily impressed by the exuberant , heart-on-sleeve music-making and rhythmic daring he brought to standard repertoire, especially Russian romantic-era music.

Coates was an enormously important recording artist during the transition from acoustic to electrical technology in 1925-6. Part of the reason that he is not better known is that, well, he was an enormously important recording artist during the transition from acoustic to then-primitive electrical recording techniques. Only a tiny handful of very good CD transfers have popped up in the last quarter century, including revelatory transfers by Ward Marston released in the late 1980s on Koch-Schwann and a good two-disc retrospective in EMI’s “Great Conductors” twofer series – all of which are not that easy to come by these days.

So hats off to Pristine Audio for initiating a new series of download-only Coates reissues, from often very rare 78 sources and again transferred by Marston, who is himself a huge Coates enthusiast. The source material has been thoroughly declicked and noise levels are quite effectively tamed. Three releases, drawing on both acoustic and electrical material, are already available, with more to come in the following weeks. The first release combines music of Bach and Beethoven, including the first electrical recording of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (sung in English) in which Coates has few rivals in ratcheting up the tension and rhythmic force of the first two movements or conveying a propulsive cantabile in the third movement. The singing is not to my taste – but does open a window on the vocal style among British singers of the era. The second program contains acoustic recordings of Russian repertoire. In 1924, Gramophone had hailed the Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony featured here as pretty much the most successful symphony recording ever, and again Coates spares little in the way of visceral excitement. Coates’s Francesca di Rimini has an almost cinematic impact, and there’s charm aplenty in Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances, complemented by a small vocal ensemble. The third release pairs Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 (and check out that ultra-swift tempo in the first movement that sounds similar to a couple of period instrument performances that would appear some six to seven decades later) with Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, including both the latter’s abridged third and fourth movements and the complete versions recorded a year later.

If you’ve never listened to acoustic recordings, fear not:  they will not make your cerebral cortex explode or your ears bleed (especially when played back from good copies with proper equalization and at the correct speed), and you will quickly get used to the medium’s resonance-related distortions and frequency limitations (the top two to three octaves of the human hearing range are all but missing). You should also prepare for a few “performance practice” shocks having a good deal to do with the technology and the somewhat cramped rooms used to record acoustically; these include a comparatively small string contingent (often using Stroh violins), ubiquitous tuba doubling of the double bass lines and string lines doubled by horn or clarinet, just to name a few. You’ll also get a good helping of interpretive conventions of the period – and, in the case of Coates’s Russian works, conventions of phrasing and tempo influenced by performances during Tchaikovsky’s lifetime.

I strongly recommend them all (and yes, even recordings this old do sound better in FLAC than .mp3, so spring for the lossless versions) – but if you have an interest what acoustic recordings have to offer, early 20th-century performance practice, and Russian music, the second release is especially recommended. I for one, intend to get the whole series.

Albert Coates Conducts Beethoven and Bach
Bach arr. Elgar: Fantasia and Fugue in c minor, BWV537
Beethoven: Gratulations-Menuett, WoO 3 * / The Creatures of Prometheus, Op.43 – Overture / Symphony No. 9 in d minor “Choral”, Op. 125 *+
+ Elsie Suddaby, soprano / Nellie Walker, contralto / Walter Widdop, tenor / Stuart Robinson, bass / Philharmonic Choir
London Symphony Orchestra
*Credited to Symphony Orchestra, probably members of LSO
Albert Coates, conductor
electrical recordings, 1925-28
Pristine Audio PASC296

Albert Coates Conducts Russian Music
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5 in e minor, Op. 64 / Francesca da Rimini, Symphonic Fantasy after Dante, Op 32
Borodin: Prince Igor – Polovtsian Dances
unidentified singers (Borodin) / The Symphony Orchestra [probably members of the LSO]
Albert Coates, conductor
acoustic recordings, 1922-24
Pristine Audio PASC297

Albert Coates Conducts Mozart and Beethoven
Mozart: Symphony No. 41 in C Major “Jupiter”, K551 / Der Schauspieldirektor, K486 – Overture
Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92 (including boith abridged and full third and fourth movements)
The Symphony Orchestra [probably members of the LSO]
Albert Coates, conductor
acoustic recordings, 1921-24
Pristine Audio PASC298

All recordings newly transferred by Ward Marston

Performances: 7-10
Recordings: 3-5 (8-10 by period standards)

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