The LSO’s Tribute to – and Celebration of – Sir Colin Davis

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  A Tribute to Sir Colin Davis – Strauss, Berlioz, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms: Students from the Royal Academy of Music and Guildhall School, London Symphony Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra, Patrick Harrild, Joseph Wolfe (conductors), Nikolaj Znaider (violin/director/conductor), Gordan Nikolitch (director). Barbican Hall, London, 18.6.2013 (MB)

Strauss:  Festmusik der Stadt Wien
Berlioz:  Overture: Le corsaire, op.21
Mozart:  Violin Concerto no.3 in G major, KV 216
Beethoven:  Symphony no.8 in F major, op.93
BrahmsNänie, op.82

And so, the London Symphony Orchestra gathered tribute to the late Sir Colin Davis. Arguably it was with this orchestra, still more so than with the Royal Opera, that Sir Colin was most at home; certainly the greater number of his appearances in recent years were here at the Barbican. But until the very end, he remained committed to music-making with the young, so it was meet and right that the concert should open with student musicians from the Royal Academy (where, as recently as 2011, I heard him conduct Béatrice et Bénédict) and the Guildhall. As Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, Principal of the RAM put it in one of a host of programme tributes, ‘Of the many distinguished conductors in British music over the last century, I cannot believe there has been anyone more committed to nurturing young musicians than Sir Colin.’ (I hope that these wonderful tributes will be made available online for all to read, if indeed they are not already.) Strauss’s 1943 Festmusik der Stadt Wien might then have seemed on paper an odd choice with which to open, but it allowed a goodly number of young musicians to assemble, and to offer a decidedly superior, eminently musical, fanfare to what was a celebration as much as a memorial.

Joseph Wolfe, Sir Colin’s son, then conducted Le Corsaire. It is doubtless unnecessary to remind anyone that Sir Colin did more than anyone for Berlioz either during or after the composer’s life. To ‘review’ these performance as if this were a ‘normal’ concert would be not so much to do something wrong as completely to miss the point. Wolfe may have taken the opening more hurriedly, and the following section more leisurely, than his father might have been expected to do – though, who knows, for this was not a musician to rest on his laurels? – but the last thing Sir Colin was was a megalomaniac, insisting that there was one ‘correct’ way to perform anything. (His courtesy and humanity proved far more lethal weapons against the monstrous regiments of ‘authenticity’ than any number of angry Adornian attacks from the likes of me.) Berlioz was honoured, as he was in Sir Colin’s final performance with the LSO and the London Symphony Chorus, a truly unforgettable performance of the Requiem. Palpable throughout was the electricity of commitment from an orchestra that had clearly loved a father-figure and above all a fellow musician.

Nikolaj Znaider, author of another moving programme tribute, joined the orchestra for Mozart’s Third Violin Concerto. He and Sir Colin had various concerts planned together; indeed, this evening was due to have offered a performance of the Mendelssohn Concerto and Schubert’s ‘Great’ C major Symphony. Amongst those plans had been exploration of Mozart. There were a few occasions when one might have sighed longingly, knowing that a tricky corner would have been deftly negotiated by the greatest Mozartian since at least Karl Böhm. But again, the point here was to rejoice in fresh musicianship. Znaider drew from the LSO a crisp and often affectionate response to Mozart’s vernal score, especially during an adorably sweet account of the slow movement, and his sensitivity as soloist was beyond reproach. The performance, however, was not without melancholy, at least in terms of response, for if we shall miss Sir Colin in Berlioz, we shall miss him even more in Mozart. Who, after all, now is left, fit to perform that most difficult and yet most crucial of musical tasks? Not many. To quote Znaider, ‘I am with one stroke without my mentor, musical father and best friend.’

In some ways the most astonishing performance of all came after the interval. The LSO, without conductor, led by Gordan Nikolitch, performed Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony, another work beloved by Sir Colin. The players were not so foolish as to attempt to replicate a Davis reading; his spirit, however, seemed present. Occasionally there might have been a moment of brusqueness unlikely to have occurred under his watch, but then a conductor-less performance can hardly be expected to yield as it might if someone – at least, someone who knew what he was doing – were on the podium. Charm, humour, strength, formal command: all of these were virtues of Sir Colin’s performances, and all were present here. As a tribute to what he accomplished with this orchestra, it would be difficult to think of anything more moving.

At least, that was, until we came to Brahms’s Nänie. Znaider led the LSO, now joined by the LSC, for a performance that was moving indeed. Its consolations, not easy but realistic, put one in mind of the German Requiem, apposite for an agnostic who was spiritual in the best, rather than the debased contemporary, sense. Brahms’s harmonies told of something numinous, and their organisation told of what we on earth might be able to accomplish. This is music we should hear far more often than we do, especially when performed with such distinction.

As an addition to the programme, Wolfe returned to conduct a tender account of Elgar’s Sospiri. It was a work Sir Colin had come to know shortly before his death. He had expressed the wish to conduct it, but had told his son that, should that not be possible, he should do so instead. The sweetness of the LSO’s vibrato, the passion and very English nobility of its performance more broadly, said all there was to say. After which, the LSO kindly invited us all to drink a wee dram of whisky – Sir Colin’s post-concert preference – to his memory. Not the least achievement of this tribute was to engender a true sense of community following the concert, as opposed to the usual sloping off into the concrete wilderness of the Barbican. In the words of Sally Matthews, ‘Colin will live on and continue to inspire.’


Mark Berry

Click here to read Mark Berry’s obituary of Sir Colin Davis