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 Obituary, Sir Colin Davis, 1927-2013

It was with extreme sadness that I heard of the death of Sir Colin Davis last night at the age of 85. He held positions with several orchestras and opera houses, including the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Opera House, and the Staatskapelle Dresden, but for me and I’m sure for many others, the most notable of his associations was with the London Symphony Orchestra. Davis first conducted the LSO in 1959, and ended up being their longest-serving principal conductor (from 1995-2006). Any attempt by me to sum up his distinguished conducting career will inevitably seem trite and incomplete, so I thought I would pick some highlights that have meant a lot to me over the years.

Sir Colin Davis
Sir Colin Davis

It’s rather hard to know where to start, as there are so many treasures. Of course, he was well-known as an ardent champion of Berlioz, Sibelius, and Tippett, and he made many exceptional recordings of the music of all three. He recorded extensively for LSO Live; indeed the label’s first releases were his performances of Dvořák’s Eighth and Ninth Symphonies, and they remain amongst the finest accounts (his recording of Symphony No. 8 was first choice in BBC Radio 3’s Building a Library back in 2011).

His range of recordings was impressive indeed, from Handel to James MacMillan, and even in his later years he was still adding new works to his repertoire, such as the symphonies of Carl Nielsen. What impressed me above all was his attention to detail: he often brought out tiny little touches in the score that passed most others by, or did something just a little bit differently to everyone else, making it seem as if I were hearing the piece for the very first time. I think of him as an extremely fine Elgarian, for example, and although he was sometimes criticised for the occasional slow tempo (such as the opening of the First Symphony, or the closing “Softly and Gently, Dearly-Ransomed Soul” from The Dream of Gerontius), his masterly sense of phrasing meant that even such measured speeds never dragged or felt plodding.

In my opinion, though, perhaps his most magnificent recording is a simply stunning disc of William Walton’s First Symphony. I didn’t know the piece beforehand, and when I heard it I was knocked back in amazement, both by the work itself but also Davis’s account of it. The cover image for the original release of this recording was an erupting volcano, and I can’t think of a more appropriate picture: with terrific playing from the LSO, this is a searing, volatile recording of such passion that it immediately catapulted the symphony to the top of my list of favourite pieces.

Davis was equally at home in the opera house. I revere his recording of Mozart’s Così fan tutte with Dame Janet Baker and Montserrat Caballé, in which he made the music sparkle from start to finish. I also don't think I’ve ever heard more truly joyous performances than his accounts of Verdi’s Falstaff (again on LSO Live), and Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel with Ann Murray and Edita Gruberová in the title roles. Berlioz looms large here, with outstanding recent recordings of Les Troyens, Benvenuto Cellini, and Béatrice et Bénédict. I’m looking forward immensely to hearing his live recording of Weber's Der Freischütz, recorded last year and due out later this month. I wasn’t at the concert, but I have no doubt that the recording will display his usual combination of insight, thrilling drama and astonishing musicality, the mark of everything he conducted.

As a final note, I hope I will be allowed the indulgence of a personal recollection: I never met him, but I did correspond with him once several years ago after he had conducted a particularly mesmerising performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the LSO at the BBC Proms. I wrote to him afterwards to say how extraordinary I thought the concert had been. Having no address for him, I merely sent it to him care of the Barbican, and therefore never expected it would even reach him, but I was amazed and touched to receive, a few weeks later, a hand-written reply, thanking me for my letter and saying how gratified he was that “something had got across”. Not only a superlative musician, then, but a gentleman: he shall be greatly missed.

You can browse all of his currently available recordings here; below are links to some of the recordings I have mentioned above.

Peter Coleman-Wright (baritone), London Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, Sir Colin Davis

Available Formats: SACD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

Ann Murray, Edita Gruberová, Gwyneth Jones, Staatskapelle Dresden, Sir Colin Davis

Available Formats: MP3, FLAC

ristine Brewer, Sally Matthews, Simon O’Neill, Stephan Loges, Gidon Saks, London Symphony Orchestra & orus, Sir Colin Davis

Available Formats: 2 SACDs, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC