When Sir Charles Mackerras died, I was faced with an odd choice as a blogger. This was a conductor whose musicmaking simply had too much personal imprint upon my life to do a normal obituary. I'm determined not to make the same mistake with Sir Colin that I did with Sir Charles. But all the same, I can't simply give the details of Sir Colin's life without talking about the personal impact of his musicmaking on me.
Pure fire and brimstone - Mozart's "Great" C-Minor Mass
By any standard, Colin Davis was not my favorite conductor. But he was one of the conductors with whom I grew up, and one of the conductors whose best performances gave me the most joy. One of my early memories was when I was four years old, and seeing Davis conduct the New York Philharmonic in Brahms's 2nd Symphony and Beethoven's 4th piano concerto. To call me an unusual little kid would have been the century's understatement, and I had practically worn out my Bruno Walter tapes of Brahms 3rd and 4th symphonies already. But even at that age, I thrilled to my discovery of Brahms 2 the way an archaeologist would thrill to the discovery of Atlantis.
Berlioz Requiem -
Much as rhythm was the basis of Sir Charles Mackerras's music-making, sound was at the center of Sir Colin's approach - and he clearly loved making sounds as rich and full as any conductor since Leopold Stokowski. But unlike Stokowski, there was a stiff-upper-lip reserve that prevented him from exceeding the bounds of good taste. He conducted very little Mahler and claimed to loathe Mahler's 'vulgarity', yet had he let that magnificent shock of a silver mane down, he could have been a truly great Mahlerian (I grew up listening to his Mahler 1 and it was a wonderful, if unorthodox, performance), or equally great in more rough-hewn composers he generally avoided like Janacek, Bartok, and Mussorgsky. But he never could let himself go enough to get rid of his particularly English 'tastefulness'. Even in composers for whom his performances were justly world-renowned, like Berlioz and Stravinsky, his performances were full of passion, but they were passionate within an extremely constricting framework. It often felt as though Sir Colin had placed himself within an interpretive straightjacket which undercut all the momentum he worked so conscientiously to build. .
Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique (I’m not even sure a Colin Davis performance is in my top dozen choices for Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique - the piece is such an amazingly bizarre sonic kaleidoscope that most conductors know that they can cut loose in any way they like, and do so only to the music’s benefit. But Sir Colin was in such demand as a Berlioz conductor that he recorded the Symphonie Fantastique no less than four times. Most record lovers prefer his Concertgebouw recording from 1974, but while I’ve not heard his 1980’s version with the Vienna Philharmonic, I believe that his first with the London Symphony in 1963 is easily the best of the three I've heard. It can’t be denied that Davis was, in his manner, a truly great Berlioz conductor. But to me, Colin Davis’s Berlioz is overvalued. His evangelism on behalf of Berlioz cannot be overvalued, but he was able to evangelize for Berlioz because he brought out all the tasteful elegance of Berlioz, showing the world that Berlioz was no less classical than anything in Haydn - in Davis’s hands, Berlioz was a ‘normal’ composer. But the Berliozian bizarre which you get from Charles Munch or Leonard Bernstein or Pierre Monteux or John Eliot Gardiner is virtually nowhere to be found. Of the Davis SF’s, most people prefer his 1974 version with the Concertgebouw. But to me, that version is too long on elegance and too short on drama. Sadly, I’ve only heard one Davis performance of the Symphonie Fantastique that can thrill on the level of Munch’s, Bernstein’s, Dudamel’s, Gardiner’s, Monteux’s, Karajan’s, Ozawa’s, Muti’s, Celibidache’s, ... I’m sure I’ll think of more before long... and it was from long before Davis could be considered a 'mature master.')
And yet, there was a second side to Davis. Even in his genial old age, this conductor who appeared the personification of avuncularity could suddenly seem inflamed with the fire of a thousand angels and demons, and cause orchestras to play with the kind of fire which their training is supposed to drain out of them. Davis belonged to a line of conductors - like Bruno Walter and Carlo Maria Giulini and James Levine - who began their careers in blazes of fire and were known for giving performances of scorched earth intensity. But as age mellowed them and the fires cooled, they began to 'savor' the music and linger on every beautiful passage to milk it for maximum expressive potential. Sometimes the results were absolutely beautiful, sometimes the results were boring and maudlin. Nevertheless, in each of these cases, these conductors could occasionally summon the fire of old and stun their audiences with a blazing excitement which no 80 year old should ever be able to summon. In Sir Colin's case, he was able to summon the old passion seemingly on command in his beloved Berlioz and Britten and Sibelius even in his final years. But there was no better example of how the fire would return than in his recordings of the Nielsen symphonies. Sir Colin had never conducted these works that are known still to strike terror in the hearts of orchestral players for their difficulty until his 80's. With one exception, the results seem marginally a success with some awkward errors. But in Nielsen 4, still one of the most difficult pieces of music ever written for orchestra, Sir Colin and the London Symphony recorded perhaps the most scorched earth performance ever made of this terror written by lightening which takes the unambiguous heroism and necessity of visceral playing which one can only find elsewhere in Beethoven, and allies it to musical techniques that are fully of the twentieth century. Sir Colin's performance of Nielsen 4 with the London Symphony is a miracle.
Stravinsky - Oedipus Rex (Good as the linked version from Munich is, it’s still not as good as the scorched earth that inevitably resulted from Colin Davis’s Stravinsky from a quarter-century earlier. Colin Davis was an angry young man, and perhaps his performances of Oedipus at Stadler Wells (no the English Naitonal Opera) did more to establish him as a force with which to be reckoned than any other single accomplishment of his early years. Most conductors, not least Stravinsky himself, are unwilling to go with Stravinsky’s writing to the primal power of his dissonances to make them as ugly as possible. But Davis plunged as fully in as his 'English' reserve would ever allow. Davis is perhaps not up there with Pierre Monteux, Ernest Ansermet, Antal Dorati, Leonard Bernstein, Valery Gergiev, and Esa-Pekka Salonen as one of the very greatest of all Stravinsky conductors, but he's damn close.)
Many of the recordings of works he recorded with that amazing fire are nowhere to be found on youtube: Benvenuto Cellini, Dvorak 7, Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements. But there is one work above all others for which he will probably always be best known. Les Troyens, Berlioz's magnum opus, the crowning glory of his grandiosely glorious career, his Grand-with-a-capital-G rendering of Virgil's Aeneid, lay unheard by most music lovers, and rarely heard by even the most passionate classical music fans, who would have to travel halfway across the world for a revival, which seemed only to happen once every five years in a single city. But by now, Les Troyens is nearly as much a repertory item as The Ring Cycle, produced everywhere in spite of its expense. We could, if we like, pretend that it's due to the efforts of other musicians. But no, it is because of Colin Davis's tireless promotion that Les Troyens is no longer a rare item, and not just his promotion of Les Troyens, (though I believe his second recording sold 100,000 copies, a number which even Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma rarely equal). It is because of his ceaseless, tireless, championing of Berlioz throughout his fifty-year career. When Sir Colin began to undertake his holy cause of performing Berlioz throughout the world, Berlioz was still an under-regarded composer for a full century after his death. For championship like that, who cares if there were Berlioz conductors who made better performances?
Colin Davis was a bit of a walking (conducting?) contradiction. A voracious reader, he was among the most intellectual men to pick up a baton, and yet few if any conductors seemed more guided by their gut instincts. And yet he would leave his gut instincts at the edge of the cliff, and rarely if ever dived off of it if it meant giving interpretations that were too controversial. He was stubbornly, resolutely old-fashioned in 'classics' from Handel down to Mendelssohn, with sometimes stunning and just as often extremely boring results. And yet he publicly accused his friend John Eliot Gardiner in the press of being insufferably dogmatic, when Gardiner's sole crime was to be the mirror image of Davis's own dogma. There should be no doubt that he was a great conductor, but he could have, and should have, been still greater.
Sibelius 3 - I grew up with his London Symphony version. I never understood why people found this a dry work, until I heard every other performance.
Michael Tippett - A Knot Garden - a work he premiered
The Legendary Peter Grimes Performance