We were all here at MusiCB3 deeply saddened to learn of the death on April 14th of Sir Colin Davis. This country’s beloved and greatly-respected elder statesman of the podium, for whom music was greater than life itself, will forever be associated with his sublime interpretations of Mozart, Berlioz and Sibelius. Adored by audiences, orchestras and opera houses the world over, he is best-known for his long and hugely successful association with the London Symphony Orchestra (as Principal Conductor 1995 – 2006, and then as its President) and his often tempestuous tenure at Covent Garden (as Music Director 1970 – 1985). He has also had fruitful partnerships with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the English Chamber Orchestra and the Dresden Staatskapelle and his work with students in particular at the Royal Academy of Music and the Guildhall was a constant, greatly-valued, thread.
Who can ever forget his great Berlioz Odyssey at the Barbican (1999 – 2000) with the LSO, or his shattering performances of Sibelius symphonies, his robust and joyful Haydn (“if you spend half an hour with a Haydn symphony, he’ll convince you the world can’t be such a bad place – such joyous sounds” Financial Times interview 22 Sept 2012), or his Mozart which was simply out of this world?
Never one to advertise himself, he always insisted that he, as conductor, was “of no account whatsoever“, but simply there to keep everyone together and allow the musicians to give voice to the music. Somehow, I rather suspect there’s a little more to it than that!
There are, of course, articles about him and interviews with him in the press and on the Web, which explore his thoughts on the music he most admired and the business of conducting – this, for example, on Les Troyens, in 2000. For more extended studies, then these three sources are of interest – all available in the University Library:
Conductors on conducting, 1979 [M606.c.95.25], a series of interviews by Bernard Jacobson which contains an extended discussion with Sir Colin about his view of Berlioz as essentially a classical composer from the German tradition.
Maestro by Helena Matheopoulos [M606.c.95.41] includes an interview with Sir Colin from 1982.
Colin Davis by Richard Alston, 1997 [M950.d.95.137] is a considered overview of his work and approach and contains a useful discography to that date.
To listen to Sir Colin in action, then there is much to choose from. Here are just three of my favourites:
Berlioz. Les Troyens. Philips 1970. Electrifying from start to finish. [Pendlebury Library CD.C.177]
Mozart. Idomeneo. Philips 1969. Utterly absorbing, quintessential Davis Mozart. [Pendlebury Library CD.C.434]
Sibelius. Complete symphonies. LSO Live. Compelling.
Away from the rostrum he was a devoted family man, an inveterate, and expert, knitter, a great planter of trees, and he read voraciously (“I consume books, it’s almost an illness” Interview with Richard Morrison, April 2012) with Shakespeare a particular passion. All in all a rich and full life, leaving a precious legacy from which we will continue to gain solace and inspiration.
Thank you Sir Colin: you were, simply, the best.