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(1882 - 1953)

‘An enormous man, very tall, immensely broad shouldered, immensely genial, but also immensely powerful. One got a sort of radiant heat from him and the excitement he could create for orchestras and choir was simply wonderful’: a vivid description of Albert Coates by fellow-conductor Stanford Robinson. Coates was the seventh and youngest son of a Yorkshire-born Englishman who ran the Russian branch of Thornton Woollen Mills; his mother was the Russian-born daughter of English parents. He studied the cello, violin and organ as a child and received composition lessons from Rimsky-Korsakov; when he was six he unknowingly encountered Tchaikovsky while improvising on the piano at a party to which his mother had taken him and in 1893 he travelled through thick snow to attend Tchaikovsky’s funeral. After these early years in Russia, when Coates was twelve he was sent to school in England, where his first music teacher, Henry Riding, encouraged composition as well as a general love of music. After a year Coates was transferred to another school where one of his brothers was also studying, and where his subjects included the organ, harmony and composition; but when his brother died unexpectedly, the shock was so great that Coates gave up music temporarily and studied science at Liverpool University.

At the age of twenty Coates returned to his family in Russia, with the intention of working in his father’s business. However this was not to his liking and music was more attractive: in the same year he enrolled at the Leipzig Conservatory. Here he studied the cello once more with the Conservatory’s principal Julius Klengel, as well as the piano; and conducting with the charismatic Hungarian Arthur Nikisch, the chief conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and of the Leipzig Opera. Coates’s skill as a pianist was to be a useful introduction to the Leipzig Opera where, after only one year as a conducting student of Nikisch, he was appointed as a répétiteur. Here he made his conducting debut with Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann in 1904, replacing a sick colleague. His success led to many more conducting opportunities during the following two years, and Nikisch, impressed by Coates’s unusually high levels of energy, remarked, ‘The conductor’s stick seems insufficient for your feelings, Coates. You’d better take a whip!’

Nikisch recommended Coates for the post of chief conductor at the Elberfeld Opera, where between 1906 and 1908 he directed the traditional repertoire of opera by Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner and Richard Strauss. He then moved to Dresden, where he was assistant to the legendary Strauss conductor Ernst von Schuch, before progressing on to Mannheim for the following season (1909–1910), where he was first conductor to its chief, Artur Bodansky. Coates made his London debut in 1910, conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, and the following year he was invited to conduct Siegfried at the Maryinsky Theatre in St Petersburg. So successful was this debut that he was engaged as a principal conductor at the Maryinsky and stayed there for a further five years. During this period he came into close contact with many major Russian musicians including Scriabin, of whom he was a consistent and energetic champion. He first appeared at Covent Garden during the 1914 season with Tristan und Isolde, and also shared performances of the Ring operas with Nikisch.

The outbreak of the Russian Revolution in 1917 was to change the direction of Coates’s career in several different ways. Initially the new Soviet government made him ‘President of all Opera Houses in Soviet Russia’ and he was based in Moscow. However by 1919 living conditions had become so bad that most of the orchestral musicians with whom he worked were starving, and some were even too ill to rehearse. Coates himself became seriously ill and with considerable difficulty left Russia with his family by way of Finland. He made his way to England, where the London Symphony Orchestra was seeking a conductor to help in its rebuilding process: its ranks had been severely depleted by war, with concerts even being suspended in 1917. In order to assist, Coates offered to conduct without fee for his initial six concerts with the orchestra, and he was duly appointed as chief conductor, leading all the concerts of the 1919–1920 season. With the LSO he went on to conduct the first performances of the revised version of Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No. 2 ‘London’, Bax’s Symphony No. 1 and the first complete public performance of Holst’s The Planets. Sir Thomas Beecham engaged him as artistic co-director and senior conductor for the first post-war season of the British Opera Company and in 1922 he conducted the Ring at Covent Garden, to be followed by Boris Godunov (1928), Siegfried (1935), and Tristan und Isolde (1937, 1938).

After the 1920–1921 season Coates ceased to be the LSO’s chief conductor but continued to work with the orchestra regularly, not least in the recording studios. After an initial period with Columbia, during which he and the LSO recorded amongst many titles Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy, for three years from the autumn of 1921 he led the orchestra in a number of significant acoustic recordings for HMV, including Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, as well as excerpts from the Wagner operas. The introduction of the electrical recording process in 1925 rendered these obsolete and also greatly stimulated the demand for recordings in general: Coates and the LSO were well placed to respond. Up until 1932, when Beecham’s new London Philharmonic Orchestra became the preferred ‘house’ orchestra for both HMV and Columbia (these companies having merged to form EMI in 1931), Coates was extremely active in the recording studio, and it is through many of these recordings that he is largely remembered today.

Among the highlights of his extensive recordings from this period are Bach’s B minor Mass, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, Borodin’s Symphony No. 2 and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 3, Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with Horowitz, Stravinsky’s Petrushka, and numerous shorter pieces and operatic excerpts. Coates’s account of the love duet from Act 2 of Tristan und Isolde with Frida Leider and Lauritz Melchior, made in Berlin and London, has been described as unique for its ‘wild, surging, truly overwhelming passion’ (Dr John Barker). Frida Leider herself left a memorable account of this recording: ‘You know both Melchior and I were inspired by Albert Coates, we felt we had achieved one of the greatest performances of this music we ever gave together… and Coates was capable of generating considerable passion. I well remember that after the final note I was so carried away that my head reeled and I had to hold on to Melchior.’

Coates had made his New York debut in 1920 at the invitation of Walter Damrosch, and between 1923 and 1925 he was chief conductor of the Rochester Symphony Orchestra. Throughout the inter-war years he built up a significant international career that included appearances at the Paris Opera (1923), in Italian opera houses (1927 to 1929), at the Berlin State Opera (1931), with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (1935), and at Rotterdam, Stockholm and in the USSR which he visited three times. In 1936 he formed the short-lived British Drama Opera Company to perform his opera Pickwick, which was the first opera to be shown on television. During World War II, Coates was based in the USA, where as well as conducting he wrote the music for several films. After returning to England in 1944 he made several distinguished recordings during 1945 for Decca with the LSO and the National Symphony Orchestra, which contained a high proportion of musicians from the armed forces. Shortly afterwards he retired to South Africa, the home of his second wife, the soprano Vera de Villiers. Here Coates both composed and conducted the Cape Town Municipal Orchestra; he died in Cape Town at the end of 1953.

In general Coates’s recordings, like the man, are suffused with a tremendous sense of vitality. This ideally suited the Russian and Romantic repertoire that he preferred, and gave Coates’s recordings great character in an age when the current technologies of acoustic recording tended often to iron out differences of interpretation. Even today it is rare to encounter performances of the music of Wagner that possess such drive and energy: for instance his recording of the Prelude to Das Rheingold, made in 1926, has been described as one of the finest ever recorded. Occasionally Coates’s enthusiasm resulted in tempi that verged on the manic, for instance in his account of Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 ‘Jupiter’, but in general he served the music that he directed well. The ending of his relationship with HMV in 1932 effectively closed his recording career, but his final post-war Decca recordings show that he had lost none of his ability to realise to the full the great Romantic scores, such as Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 ‘Pathétique’, and where in addition he had the benefit of Decca’s new ‘Full Frequency Range Recording’ system. The gradual ending of copyright restrictions and the growth of interest in the great musicians of the past has done much to rehabilitate Albert Coates as a distinguished musician in the mould of Arthur Nikisch, the mentor for all twentieth-century conductors.

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