There’s no better way to begin a survey of Eric Coates’s Orchestral Works (irrespective of however many volumes this Chandos series will take) than with The Merrymakers (A Miniature Overture), which John Wilson and the BBC Philharmonic bring off exceptionally well, combining as-one foot-tapping exuberance and beguiling lyricism and a literal second of Elgarian pathos. There’ll be dancing in the aisles to this one.
Although Englishman Coates (1886-1957, a viola-player in the Queen’s Hall Orchestra in his younger days, until dismissed by Henry Wood for not always turning up) had a genius for melody, rhythm, description, and regularly issues warm-hearted invitations to listen and enjoy, he has two serious weaknesses: a tendency to bombast (when pomp/patriotism gets the better of him), and, even more industrial, an overdosing on percussion, especially cymbals, which can be maddening.
However, this opener sets the standard – that Wilson is relishing every second of the music, that the BBC Phil is in great nick and that Stephen Rinker’s engineering brings sound of clarity and fidelity, every detail, dynamic and subtlety captured perfectly.
From merrymaking to the Suite from The Jester at the Wedding (a ballet); earworms galore: the opening ‘March’ is straight out of toy-town, the ‘Minuet’ rather sad; exquisite woodwind contributions. The best-known movement (of six) is the perky ‘Valse’, involving orange blossoms, and musically in the league of Glazunov’s Concert Waltzes; so to follow Jester with Dancing Nights is a good idea: Wilson’s tempos might be too quick for Strictly contestants but blow away any cobwebs this piece may have acquired since 1931; here bright and breezy. Following which the heartfelt Ballad for String Orchestra brings a change of timbre and sentiment, Tchaikovsky to the fore; the opening marking is Andante cantabile (what more clue do you want!).
The Slavic intensity of the first Symphonic Rhapsody, and the exotic contrasts therein, might surprise (pleasantly) as Coates treats his song ‘I Pitch My Lonely Caravan’ to an orchestral extension, whereas No.2 is duskier, again using Coates’s own ditties, ‘Bird Songs at Eventide’ and ‘I Heard You Singing’, Coates also had a genius for alluring says-it-all titles.
By the Sleepy Lagoon needs no introduction – the signature-tune since day one (in 1942) of Desert Island Discs – here shapely and voluptuous; my word, the BBC Phil strings (led by Yuri Torchinsky) are a gorgeous-sounding outfit. Finally London: it’s a nippy ride through ‘Covent Garden’ (oh, those cymbals!) but the cherries are ripe; then ‘Westminster’, an awed nocturne (I assume the excellent cellist is Peter Dixon) with horn Big Ben chimes adding atmosphere; concluding with ‘Knightsbridge’, hustle and bustle, Wilson supporting the “Quick March” designation with glee, the BBC Phil putting its best foot forward and accenting keenly. Roll on Vol. 2.