Today's Classical Music Video

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Colin Davis (1927-2013) Remembered

Colin Davis began his musical career as an angry and arrogant young man but lived long enough to become a beloved and venerated figure. He died this past weekend at the age of 85 after a long and distinguished career.

His "big break" came in 1959 when he filled in for an ailing Otto Klemperer in a concert performance of Mozart's Don Giovanni with the Philharmonia Orchestra. It was a huge success. Davis went on to become one of the finest Mozart conductors of his generation, combining grace and elegance with crisp rhythms and expressive intensity. But he had a wide range of musical interests and offered performances of Handel, Haydn, Beethoven, Sibelius and Elgar that were a unique blend of accuracy and insight.

One of his greatest achievements was to draw attention to the music of Hector Berlioz. In the 1950s Berlioz was known for only a handful of pieces and his stature was not widely recognized. Davis changed all that. He understood this music and championed it whenever possible. He collaborated with Berlioz scholar David Cairns and with Philips Records to record virtually the whole of Berlioz' output including the operas.

Davis also took a serious interest in the music of contemporary British composers. He became a strong advocate of Michael Tippett and premiered many of his major works.

Colin Davis held a series of major appointments that included music directorships of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, succeeding Solti, and the BBC Symphony, the Bavarian Radio Symphony and the Dresden Staatskapelle. His last major appointment was as principal conductor of the London Symphony.

Davis had the distinction of being asked to head no fewer than three major American orchestras at various times: the Cleveland Orchestra, the Boston Symphony, and the New York Philharmonic. He turned down all three but he did accept principal guest conductorships in Boston and New York.

When Colin Davis passed away a few days ago the NY Times published an obituary that was a travesty. The writer made the claim that Davis was not widely recognized or appreciated until 1992. In fact, he had already been at the top of his profession for nearly 30 years by that time!

I heard Davis conduct often during his association with the Boston Symphony in the 1970s. I will never forget a glorious Elgar First from Tanglewood and a hair-raising Final Scene from Hamlet at Symphony Hall. Another remarkable performance was a complete Messiah at Tanglewood. Davis had made a recording of the work in 1966 that was a revelation. Using the latest scholarship Davis gave us a much lighter and cleaner Messiah than many of us were used to hearing. It was a game-changer. That Tanglewood performance helped to spread the word about this "new" Messiah. Another great occasion was a definitive performance of Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique in Toronto with the Bavarian Radio Symphony.

I interviewed Davis in Boston in the 1970s and he struck me as deeply introspective and self-critical. He was a famous conductor by this time and yet he didn't really enjoy the trappings of fame, and was very suspicious of what it meant to be a "Maestro." With a snarl he complained about this "aggressive piece of wood" that was the tool of his trade.

He was a deeply sensitive man who was hard on his colleagues but mostly hard on himself. Above all, he loved music and illuminated a great deal of it for millions of listeners.

The video features Nimrod from Elgar's Enigma Variations, a piece often played when prominent people pass away. It is a fitting tribute to the passing of Sir Colin himself. The video is interesting for other reasons too. Notice the very slow tempo. It has become fashionable to play Nimrod a lot faster these days. I think Sir Colin gets it exactly right.
Notice also the fluency of Davis' right hand. This is not just conducting technique; it is grace and beauty that raises baton-waving to an art form.

I believe that this performance of Nimrod was given as an encore at a concert in Tokyo by the Dresden Staatskapelle.  

Paul E. Robinson



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