Eric Coates: Orchestral Works Vol. 3

BBC Philharmonic Orchestra

Conducted by John Wilson


CHAN 20164

This welcome third instalment of John Wilson’s revisiting of Coates’ oeuvre will be sure to delight Light Music fans and (dare we hope) introduce yet more to his output. Celebrated by Ethel Smyth as “The man who writes tunes!”, the composer more than lives up to his reputation in this programme. All of the music on this disc has been recorded and released before, but this should not cause anyone to hesitate from quickly acquiring this set. If anything, it makes for a remarkable comparative listening exercise for the curious audience.

Coates himself, of course, recorded all of this material and one of the many joys of this issue is how authoritatively John Wilson (arguably the Light Music interpreter with the highest media profile) closely captures the essence of Coates’ own recordings. Of course, the 21st century sound engineering makes for a much fuller sound, allowing for details to emerge with more clarity and with far superior resonance in the lower ranges of the ensemble.

Two well-established favourites take ‘centre stage’ here: the wonderfully inventive Three Elizabeths (Celebrating in three movements Elizabeth I, Elizabeth of Glamis and Princess Elizabeth) and the ubiquitous Dam-Busters’ March. The central movement of Three Elizabeths exhibits the composer at his most expansive (running to eight and a half minutes alone), infused with longing Scottish folk inflected melodies, one gloriously delivered by solo oboe, with a plaintive horn countermelody. Indeed, it is the richness of the inner voices that this contemporary recording exhibits so well, highlighting details that might be overlooked on older releases, such as the canon entry of the A theme in the Dam Busters in the mid-to-low strings. Of course, the BBC Philharmonic and John Wilson must also be congratulated on the crispness of the sound and attentiveness to the sometimes hidden riches of this orchestral writing.

Less familiar to this reviewer was the Three Men Suite, with which I was also very taken. Some have described this as a kind of oblique self portrait on the part of the composer and indeed three distinct aspects of personality shine through here. The highlight, once again, is the central movement, which could easily tip over into maudlin sentimentality, but in the hands of Wilson and the BBC Phil, it captures multiple facets of the Man About Town’s moods with easy lilting romanticism and a toe-tapping development of the motif.

The Cinderella phantasy presents a particularly interesting comparison, as quite a frequently recorded work. Wilson’s reputation in many works is for taking things at a fairly snappy pace, but this is so far the longest rendition of the piece I have yet heard, a full four minutes longer than Coates’ own recording, thanks in part I believe to restoring a cut section. It is longer even than Rumon Gamba’s recording, also on Chandos. Interestingly, however, some of the tempi in Wilson’s rendition are indeed quite snappy, but he allows for the ralls and slower sections to be marginally more expansive, which lends the work as a whole greater contrast and serves the storytelling extremely well. In this version, unlike previous recordings, the phantasy is broken up into shorter tracks with a programmatic heading on each, making this a handy musical guide as well as an excellent rendition.

The CD is filled out with some charming Coates miniatures, the famed Television March, as well as the more wistful Last Love and Sweet Seventeen.

An invaluable collection for the curious listener and a growing collection of recordings from these performers, which is sure to delight both the Coates initiate and the devotee.  DA

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