Sir Colin Davis, 25 September 1927 – 14 April 2013

Sir Colin Davis, 25 September 192714 April 2013

Sir Colin Davis, who has died aged 85, was unquestionably one of the greatest conductors of his generation. Born in 1927 in Weybridge, Surrey, his great uncle’s generosity enabled him to attend Christ’s Hospital school, whence he gained a clarinet scholarship to study at the Royal College of Music. Unable to attend conducting classes on account of the conservatoire’s insistence that a conductor must be a pianist – shades already of an affinity with Berlioz, that rarest of beasts in being a non-pianist nineteenth-century composer – he learned his conducting ‘on the job’, not least in his work with the Chelsea Opera Group, whose first performance (Don Giovanni) he conducted at the age of twenty-two, whilst continuing his work as a clarinettist. Just two years after assuming, in 1957, the post of Assistant Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Don Giovanni came to the rescue once again, or rather Davis came to the rescue of Don Giovanni, replacing Klemperer in a Royal Festival Hall concert performance. The music directorship at Sadler’s Wells followed, though personal difficulties led to its premature termination. Thereafter came his most celebrated formal associations: the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Opera, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Staatskapelle Dresden, and perhaps most fruitful of all, the London Symphony Orchestra (not to forget an ongoing, longstanding relationship with the English Chamber Orchestra). Moreover, Davis was the first Englishman to conduct at Bayreuth; his Tannhäuser with Götz Friedrich is still available on DVD.

Latterly peerless as a Mozartian, indeed universally recognised by all but carping ‘authenticists’ as the greatest Mozart conductor after the death of Karl Böhm, and quite simply the greatest champion Berlioz has ever had and could ever have, Sir Colin’s greatness as a musician extended far beyond those composers. He was just as highly esteemed in the music of Sibelius, and did more than anyone else for the music of Sir Michael Tippett. Twentieth-century sympathies, or at least responsibilities, were broader than Davis’s later programming might have suggested: he was an enthusiastic conductor of Stravinsky; he conducted the first British performances of the three-act version of Lulu; other premières ranged from Henze’s Tristan to James Macmillan’s St John Passion (review), the latter work a commission for his eightieth birthday. It was nevertheless in the central, largely Germanic, repertoire that Sir Colin remained steeped. Speaking personally, I heard from him perhaps the greatest performance of the Eroica I have experienced in concert, unquestionably the greatest of any Mendelssohn symphony and of Haydn’s Creation; it would be possible to go on and on, but such listing might better be postponed for another occasion.

Living within London’s musical orbit as I do made Sir Colin an abiding presence in my personal musical life, given the regular opportunities I was afforded to hear him both with the LSO and at Covent Garden. Mozart requires but one thing, perfection, and more often than not, his operas received it from this conductor. Single-handedly rescuing Così fan tutte from an insufferably objectionable production was not the least of Sir Colin’s achievements; I doubt that even a Böhm performance would have ravished quite as that did, nor spoken with greater, more lightly-worn wisdom. Moreover, I cannot imagine a more loving performance than those I heard from his baton of Ariadne auf Naxos and Hänsel und Gretel. As for a 2000 Proms performance of Les Troyens, ‘definitive’ would almost seem inadequate to express the ‘rightness’ of every aspect of the conducting, utterly unforced, utterly convincing. (I often thought it a pity we did not hear Sir Colin in Gluck; his experience in both Mozart and Berlioz would surely have made him an ideal choice.)

Recent ‘period performance’ fads would on occasion rouse Davis’s justified ire, especially when their ideological enforcement threatened to eclipse other performing alternatives. A 1993 interview with The Independent had him voice his credo in that respect: ‘’I despair of them. They don’t know what they’re doing. And in their ignorance they’re now dictating who can play what repertory. I’ve just seen a letter that the Arts Council sent to the ECO, and it says that if the ECO want funding to go on playing composers like Telemann, they’ve got to ditch their instruments and get some “period” hardware. The letter talks about “historically informed performance”. I’ve never heard such nonsense in all my life. What next? You know, I’m thinking of going to the Arts Council and asking for money to start a castrato foundation. There don’t seem to be many castratos about these days; and if the Arts Council expects us all to be “authentic” – well, it had better make provision, hadn’t it?’ Sir Colin’s determination to hold the line at least at Mozart, and still occasionally to make forays into the music of Bach and Handel, was greatly appreciated by those of us who valued music-making over dogma.

Two of his most recent towering achievements, both with the LSO, and equally important, with the London Symphony Chorus, were his Proms performance of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis – is there any sterner test? – and a City of London Festival performance, in St Paul’s Cathedral, of Berlioz’s Requiem. The latter must have been one of the last concerts he gave. It was recently released on LSO Live and will surely make the most fitting of memorials. Even at the time, both performances seemed especially haunted by intimations of mortality and yet all the more strengthened by humanistic resolution. One probably had to return to Klemperer – to whom some of Davis’s late performances seemed increasingly close in spirit – to experience with quite such searing dramatic truth Beethoven’s defiant struggle with the Christian liturgy.

Yet it is ultimately the generosity, indeed greatness, of spirit that will linger still longer than any particular performance. When fully reunited with the LSO in 1995 as Principal Conductor, he accepted on condition that he should hold no management responsibilities, believing that power corrupted, and could only stand in the way of making music. (Not for nothing was he horrified by the excesses of the Thatcher government.) No martinet could ever hope to conduct Mozart sympathetically; Sir Colin’s humanity seemingly informed every note he conducted, and as he grew older, a still greater awareness of the tragedy lying behind Mozart’s every utterance grew evident. ‘Smiling through tears’ is a phrase I have employed perhaps too often for Mozart, but it seems especially appropriate now that we mourn one of his greatest servants. He will surely be in everyone’s mind as the Royal Opera’s revival of The Magic Flute opens on Tuesday, dedicated, as it had to be, to the memory of its former Music Director.

Mark Berry

For an appreciation of Sir Colin Davis and his recording legacy, click here.