Sunday, 13 October 2013

'That brutal selfish ill-mannered bounder ... that brute Coates'

Scriabin:  Le Poème de l'extase, Op. 54

London Symphony Orchestra 
conducted by Albert Coates

Columbia L1380-L1382
(74060-2, 74061-2, 74081-1,74082-2, 74062-1)
Recorded Saturday 25th April 1920 & Wednesday 5th May 1920

Lecocq: La Fille de Madame Angot - Entract Act III

Sir Thomas Beecham's Light Opera Orchestra
Conducted by Eugene Goossens III

Columbia L1382
Recorded July/August 1919

Link to Flac file (about 70Mb)

The Scriabin is a bit noisy I'm afraid but then I don't want to loose the little dynamic that has survived the recording process, might have another go sometime but this is the best I can manage for now - the Lecocq is much less of a problem.

Although Scriabin's Le Poeme d'Extase had been given a first hearing in the UK under Serge Koussevitzky at the Queens' Hall in 1910 but it was not until after the First War, when Albert Coates returned to conduct in the UK, that the work was given its next outing. Unfortunately Scriabin was becoming decidedly unfashionable, Compton Mackenzie writing but a few years later in The Gramophone probably voiced a general sentiment 'Opinions may differ about Wagner. I am only just emerging from a decade of hating Wagner and everything that Wagner ever did; a hatred I have now transferred to Scriabine. No doubt, in another 20 years, if God will and if His Master's Voice issue (perhaps) a special Scriabine supplement, I shall have reached a final opinion about him.' Not a very favourable endorsement for anyone wishing to buy this set of three records issued by Columbia in November 1920.

Albert Coates in 1932

Coates personally knew Scriabin and probably through the Siloti concerts at St Petersburg conducted a number of his work. When he returned to London Albert Coates became conductor to London Symphony Orchestra at the end of 1919. He had already announced his arrival from Russia with a series of concerts at the Queen's Hall, the orchestra is not mentioned in the publicity but was likely to be the Henry Wood's Queen's Hall Orchestra.

Second London Performance

The Sciabin was one of the pieces then played. 'A third concert, given by Mr. Coates on May 6, 1919 was devoted to Russian music. Tchaikovsky loomed rather largely in the scheme, being represented by his 'Romeo and Juliet' and B flat minor Pianoforte Concerto, played by Miss Katharine Goodson, but it was interesting to hear Rimsky-Korsakoff's Suite from 'The Legend of Tzar Saltan' with its invigorating rhythms, and Scriabin's ' Poeme de l'extase.' This latter work had been heard only once before in London, if memory serves correctly, and had made a strong impression with its richly woven design. Intervening years have enabled us to perceive the strands of the texture more clearly, and to know them as harmonies which, once considered exotic, are now becoming typical of Marylebone and Kensington. The skill of Scriabin's weaving is however none the less open to admiration.' (Musical Times for 1 June 1919) Even at this juncture Scriabin was thought by this critic to be on the side of being a bit passée.


This series of concerts changed the course of Coates' career as they where so well received that he decided to stay in Britain. The LSO was then trying to re-establish itself after the war and Coates was quickly appointed their conductor. He decided to forgo any payment for the first six concerts when he was trying to knock the orchestra into shape. A member of the orchestra of that time described his rehearsal methods 'Coates had a lot to give – and he gave it all' (Pearton LSO at 70, p. 60)


The effort to get the orchestra up to scratch caused other problems. The initial series of concerts contained a lot of music new to the LSO and this may account for at least one disastrous premier.

'The concert of the 27 October 1919 included the first performance of Elgar's cello concerto, conducted by composer, 'the rest of the programme was conducted by Albert Coates, who overran his rehearsal time [by an hour it seems] at the expense of Elgar's. Lady Elgar wrote, "that brutal selfish ill-mannered bounder ... that brute Coates went on rehearsing”. The critic of The Observer, Ernest Newman, wrote, "There have been rumours about during the week of inadequate rehearsal. Whatever the explanation, the sad fact remains that never, in all probability, has so great an orchestra made so lamentable an exhibition of itself'' (Wikipedia).

I can't actually find a balanced opinion on this concert as both Elgar and Coates supporters seem to be at odds over what happened that evening. My own speculation is that it was probably Coates being over ambitious in his programming and the orchestra not being yet strong enough to cope and things just got a little bit scary. 

To Liverpool

Still, Coates persisted with the Scriabin, taking the LSO on a tour they played the piece again at Liverpool. 'The second Philharmonic concert on November 11th, was in the nature of a personal triumph for Mr. Albert Coates, who likes to remember his early experiences as a schoolboy at the Liverpool Institute—a school which has turned out many clever men—and later as a student of chemistry at the University of Liverpool, under Sir (then Prof.) Oliver Lodge. Mr. Coates's fame as a conductor was clearly upheld on this occasion, when he had drawn up a programme largely of Russian music, with which he has such intimate acquaintance and evident sympathy. It contained his master, Rimsky-Korsakov's, 'Procession of Princes,' from 'Mlada,' Liadov's 'Eight Russian Folk Songs,'characteristic trifles, and Scriabin's ' Poeme de l'Extase,' which was kept to the last and overtopped all else. Mr. Coates secured a performance of this extraordinary music which will long dwell in memory. He certainly managed to convey to his listeners much of the marvel, mystery, and mastery of the amazing score, which requires seven horns and five trumpets, gong, bells, celesta, with extra harp, and organ. It is without doubt a stupendous creation, but ordinary people will find little comfort in it as music. More pleasure, if less psychology, was found in Cyril Scott's two 'Passicaglias,' (Musical Times 1 December 1919)

Ezra Pound having an opinion
The Scriabin was programmed yet again for a performance at the Queen's Hall on the 17th December 1919 and was again reviewed with some condescension. 'The starred number was the Scriabin "Poeme d'Extase." Here, as in the Korsakov, Coates showed his realisation of the capacities of his orchestra, but the extase is senescent; it is manifestly not the extase of youth; the long beginning is like the prose of its era, heavy as Henry James or as Charles Louis Phillippe, fin de siecle, of an extreme and laborious sophistication, Coates doing admirably, Scriabin conscientiously avoiding the obvious in everything save the significance, and treating one of the oldest topics with anatomic minuteness, though possibly unconscious of his humour, anatomic even to the notes given on the triangle, spurring one to quotations from Gamier's "Carmen." The double basses superb, but one longed, possibly, for the older spirit of English May-day. It is too late to emend the title; we quarrel with no work of art because of title lightly or sarcastically given, but we think Scriabin would have been kinder to his audience if he had labelle this poeme "Satire upon an Old Gentleman," or possibly "Confessions of Trouble," supposing all the time he "knew." We entertain doubts, however, as to just how far his awareness extended. (Ezra Pound The New Age 15 January 1920, p. 175)

Belfast unimpressed

By this time the LSO must have know the piece very well indeed. For a concert at Belfast on the 16th February 1920 Coates attempted the Scriabin with another orchestra. 'Chief among these … was the appearance of the Beecham Symphony Orchestra, with Mr. Albert Coates conducting, when Belfast musicians and music-lovers had a treat such as they had not known for a long time. The first part of the programme was of Wagner numbers, while the second part comprised Cyril Scott, Liadoff, and Scriabin. The selection was admirable, although there were probably not many auditors who could honestly say that they appreciated the ' Poeme de Extase' of the last-named composer. (Musical Times 1st April 1920)

On his return to London the LSO took to making the recording. I think the recording has given us a performance both very well rehearsed and still new enough not to have become routine. I have listened to several other performances and the energy and subtlety that the LSO and Coates has given us is quite special.

The recording

I confess I was at first slightly confused by sides 1, 2 & 5 being recorded on the 24th April 1920 and sides 3 & 4 on the 5th May 1920 with each session having consecutive matrix numbers. I believe that the first intention was to market it as a three sided set with a filler piece. This original intention was changed when it was thought to try for a complete, or near complete version. Unfortunately a miscalculation was made when it was found that the music for the central section could not be fitted onto two sides, and worse,  if the music was stretched to three sides then the records would look a bit short and buyers would feel short changed. The only expedient way to avoid making all the sides again was to make a cut,  thus a minute of music between sides 4 & 5 is missing, unfortunately they also managed to loose a couple of bars between sides 2 & 3. I would think that these points would not be noticed much when playing the original  consecutively, but does cause a bit of a problem when the whole work is joined together. Still I have done what I can.

Perils of Recording

Pearson in his book on the LSO at 70 gives an account of a Coates recording session from the diary of the principle violinist of the LSO, H. Wynn Reeves. This appears to recount a recording session for the either the 8th or the 11th December 1922 or the 18th July 1923 or at least a conflation of two different events.

'Most of the recording took pace in a small room, the orchestra being reduced to its lowest possible limit, and we were crowded together in the endeavour to propel whatever we had to play into one or two recording bells. Occasionally we did excerpts from the Ring – this was sheer murder.

'I remember a series we undertook in midsummer one year, the strings were reduced to 2 × 1sts, 2 × 2nds, 1 va. 1 cello, 1 bass, the minimum of woodwind, brass and percussion; Billy Reed and I were playing into No. 1 bell (or horn), our bows being not more than 2 inches from the rim. The music being away back under the bell necessitated stooping down to see what we had to play; it was my job to turn the pages; woe betide me if the music rustled or if my bow touched the bell. Standing behind us with their music stands leaning on our shoulders, were the woodwind blowing into our ears as loudly as possible; behind them again were the brass.

LSO Brass 1922

'High up on my left was Albert Coates conducting. Immediately below him stood Florence Austral, as Brünnhilde. Coates quickly discovered that some of her notes jarred the bell, so grabbed her hair, pulling her forward into the bell for some notes, and pushing back for the dangerous ones. Try to imagine interpreting Brünnhilde under these circumstances!
'On the right was another bell for the male chorus of six and two principles, Robert Parker as Wotan and Robert Radford as Hagen, the routine being the principles ducked when the chorus had to sing and vice versa. There was constant pushing and shoving to make way, all this causing repercussions on the bow arm. High up was an electric fan on a block of ice perfectly useless as the temperature registered 95° Fahrenheit!'

This was a more complicated recording arraignment than that used in the Scriabin which I think had two horns – one for the main orchestra, strings to the front, brass to the back, and another side horn for the woodwind. If any of you are still reading this I give another note, a brief one, below re the the filler side and why the recordings sound different.

 The very Leninism of music

The last contemporary review I shall give of this composition, again from Musical Times, perhaps best of all sums up the sheer excitement that the LSO under Coates bring.

'During last Whitsuntide [week beginning 24 May 1920], Mr. Cyril Jenkins, who is the moving spirit of the Welsh Musical Festival,. temporarily took the matter into his own hands by holding a two days' competition at Mountain Ash and, by engaging the London Symphony Orchestra to give two concerts in that town and concerts at Cardiff,Swansea, and Newport. The five days' Festival, organized on a lavish scale, was devoted almost exclusively to contemporary music, and among the British composers represented were Sir Edward Elgar, Granville Bantock, Julius Harrison, Cyril Jenkins, Dr. Vaughan Thomas, Delius, Josef Holbrooke, and Dr. Vaughan Williams, the first five of whom conducted their own works; in addition there was music by Wagner, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, Scriabin ('Le Poeme d'Extase'), Dukas and others. These composers, familiar enough to every concert-goer in London and in the larger provincial towns of England, are little known in Wales ; so novel were they indeed, and so incomprehensible to the only partially educated musicians of Wales were the idioms employed, that one heard on all hands, both from the Press and the public, that adjective of execration 'revolutionary.' What to us is familiar daily food is to Wales the very Leninism of music.

But not all the music proved caviare to the general, for an overwhelming surprise awaited us at Mountain Ash. The huge pavilion there accommodated an audience variously estimated at from 5,000 to 7,000 people, most of whom were of the so called working classes - miners, engineers, and the like. One would have expected that so novel and hectic a composition as Scriabin's 'Le Poeme d'Extase' would leave such a gathering bored and contemptuous; but the exact contrary proved to be the case. Mr. Albert Coates's interpretation whipped his listeners to an enthusiasm that found vent in a physical demonstrativeness such as the Albert and Queen's Halls can never have witnessed: at one point it appeared as though the complete work would have to be played a second time. It was this demonstration that made those of us interested in the musical welfare of Wales feel that we had underestimated the capacity of the working man in that country to assimilate and understand the more difficult compositions of modern times; and it was this demonstration which indicated that, if orchestral music were supplied with some approach to regularity, Wales would provide the necessary support. (Musical Times for 1 July 1920)

Charles Lecocq

Lecocq Daughter of Madam Angot 

The question of what to put on the 6th side looks an odd choice. An abridged recording of Lecocq Daughter of Madam Angot was cut by Columbia in August 1919. Seventeen sides were made, the matrix numbers of these records running from 76568 to 76584. Of these, sixteen sides were issued in an album containing eight records numbered L1370-1377 in February 1921. This left matrix 76569 without a coupling so some wag thought to put it as the coupling to the Scriabin – probably giving the purchaser some light relief, certainly this side has been played a bit more than the other five. This recording is a very good example of what appears to be a one horn recording – very clear and well balanced – the album of records where almost all ensemble pieces so other horns would have been attached for these but for the orchestra alone they would have been removed. It would have been more complicated and time consuming to rearrange the orchestra just for a couple of orchestral sections so the recording room was set up with the orchestra facing one horn and the singers and chorus other horns. As I have mentioned elsewhere on this blog if you play into one horn some of the sound goes towards cutting the disc but also a certain amount comes out of the other horns - this is not a problem here and so the sound is not as fuddled or unbalanced as that of for the Scriabin.

Eugene Goossens III


  1. Fascinating information, Jols - thanks, as always.

  2. Thanks Buster

    I could have written even more but 'my public' might get overload - my wife would think I'd gone even more silly!


  3. I love your combination of writing and (very interesting) recordings, so I don't mind at all if you write more! Thanks again for this recording and all the verry interesting information!~
    Greetz, Satyr

  4. Thanks Satyr

    Glad you like my prose - nice to give the recordings some context

    Best wishes


  5. I agree with the other commenters (is that a word??) that what elevates many of the recordings from being just curios are the essays and graphics that put everything in context and make for enjoyable reading.
    Thank you

    1. Ta Eric

      Moving historical recordings away from dilettante collecting and into a legitimate source worthy of study is always going to be a serious challenge. I think this change of direction is happening today by leaps and bounds



  6. Interestingly, considering how Coates torpedoed the premiere of the Elgar concerto, Coates's grand-daughter, Tanya Prochazka, is a professional cellist (and a very good one).

    I've heard her play the Dvorak but, alas, not the Elgar...

  7. You suggest that perhaps the recording didn't stretch to six sides because there might have been concern that some of the middle sides would have been rather short measure. On 11 Dec 1919 Coates recorded the 4th movement of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherezade for Columbia, across 4 sides. The timings are 3:13, 2:44, 1:21 and 3:35. I don't know if there was any public reaction, particularly to that very brief 3rd side. It makes me wonder if the were already absolutely determined to use the Lecocq as a filler, and were not prepared to lose it to expand the Scriabin to a full 6 sides. Of course they might have considered re-recording the 5th side, starting at figure 30 in the score (where side 4 ended), as currently side 5 is only 3:22, compared to 4:30 for side 3.

    Such are the idle dreams of those of us who study old recordings. Coates's first recording session, for example, on 6 August 1919 was devoted to Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet across 6 sides, 2 takes each, but went unissued. At least he recorded issued versions for HMV and DECCA. But his early HMV sessions included a Brahms 1st Symphony on 7 sides (presumably abridged) which never saw the light of day. His abridged acoustic recording of Beethoven 7 was issued, but sessions in October 1925 saw him record the work in full for the microphone, again unissued. On 23rd August 1926 18 sides were recorded from a live performance of Elijah with soloists including Florence Austral, Edna Thornton, Gladys Ripley, Frank Webster and Edward Halland, but only 2 choruses were issued.

    Still, I'm so grateful for the tremendous recorded legacy he did leave us.

    1. Sorry I missed your analysis of the number of sides and took so long to reply.

      You are quite right on the this, heaven knows really what the 'plan' was but at least we have something. Short measure is mentioned in The Gramophone on various pieces but this I think was a developing situation as the recording companies got out of snippets and into complete works. The commercial risks was likely to be considerable for some of these recordings of the more unorthodox stuff. I recently read that Misical Comedy became less experimental and lighter by 1918 as a result of the war. I suggest the classical world would have replicated this conservatism to some extent and nu 1919/20 the tecording companies were begining to find their feet again. Questions, questions, questions.