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In Memoriam: Hearing Sir Colin Davis (1927 - 2013)

available at Amazon Tippett, Midsummer Marriage

UK | DE | FR
available at Amazon Britten, Peter Grimes

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To pick a dozen recordings from Sir Colin Davis’ discography that do his life, work, and art justice is either terribly easy (because there are so many) or terribly difficult (because twelve are so few). Davis was one of the most prolific, and most recorded conductors, rivaled only by Sir Neville Marriner, Bernard Haitink, Riccardo Muti, Neeme Järvi, Daniel Barenboim, and Claudio Abbado—to mention only peers that are still active.

Although Colin Davis did much to generate interest in composers like Michael Tippet and James MacMillan, shaped our impression of Benjamin Britten on account of a stunning account Peter Grimes, and conducted a vast repertoire during his sixteen years heading Covent Garden, decade with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, and twelve years as Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, he will be remembered primarily for two composers: as the foremost champion of Berlioz, and

as a Sibelian of the first order.


available at Amazon
J.Sibelius, Symphonies & Tone Poems,
C.Davis / Boston Symphony

available at Amazon
J.Sibelius, Kullervo,
C.Davis / LSO
LSO Live

The latter point will be ceded even by those who don’t like his particular brand of Sibelius, simply because Davis advocated Sibelius long before Sibelius had become mainstream. It is easy to forget that only thirty years ago, Sibelius was “unusual repertory” and a niche composer. (In continental Europe they still haven’t rediscovered him.) John Rockwell wrote in the New York times in 1984 that Davis’ Sibelius recordings attested to the “possible resurgence of interest in the music of Sibelius, who was perhaps overpraised by conservative critics of the previous generation, but who has certainly been underpraised and underperformed in the last couple of decades.”

So let’s start with his Sibelius and let’s get the critical part out of the way: Davis’ Sibelius Symphonies are—in a way—a little like Bernstein’s: saccharine, heart-on-sleeve, superficial, and fabulous. Certainly Davis’s first Sibelius cycle with the Boston Symphony manages to be great and overrated. I find myself feeling slightly guilty listening to it, because it strikes me as great for all the wrong reasons. Davis seems to have a knack for turning Sibelius into a kind of Nordic Strauss: something the Finn simply isn't. It feels as though you are listening through layers of accumulated Sibelius-assumptions, and you get something very beautiful in the end, but if you compared it to the original (if that were possible in music, which it isn’t with any exactitude), you wouldn’t anymore recognize the latter. In any case, the orchestra’s sumptuous, detailed, and delicate sound fits this vision of Sibelius to a T, unlike the shoddy RCA remake with the LSO. (See the Sibelius Cycle Survey for a quick overview.) Try the Sixth or Seventh, which are glorious in their way.

Three’s a charm: While the first LSO Sibelius cycle is curiously neither fish nor fowl, topped—in the bad sense—by a ratty, laggard account of Kullervo (Sibelius’ most wonderful ‘failed’ composition—his choral Symphony No.0, if you will), the remake for LSO Live (all on SACDs) is decidedly fish (or like one, taking to water), and topped by a terrific Kullervo which might just be the LSO-Davis Sibelius recording to have!


available at Amazon Berlioz, Requiem

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available at Amazon Berlioz, SymFan (RCO)
Pentatone SACD

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available at Amazon Berlioz, SymFan (LSO II)

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available at Amazon Berlioz, Les Troyens
LSO Live

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There are three Colin Davis recordings of Berlioz’ Requiem, the Grande Messe des morts: When I heard of Davis passing, I played all three: The Philips studio recording (1970, re-issued in 4-channel surround on Pentatone), a live recording with the Dresden Staatskapelle on the occasion of the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Dresden (Profil Hänssler), and then—fittingly—the very last recording Davis made, for LSO Live. It’s the terrific Dresden account that is the most involving and it even sounds best.

No Colin Davis or Berlioz collection is complete without at least one of his four commercial recordings of the Symphonie Fantastique. His first, with the LSO made in 1963 (Philips), is youthful-crisp and set the tone for his Berlioz-exploits to come. The second, perhaps most famous, with the Royal Concertgebouw (Philips and Pentatone), is saturated with color. The third, with the Vienna Philharmonic (Philips again) is sweeter and broader; the last—full circle with the LSO again, almost four decades later—best in its hushed and crepuscular moments (LSO Live).

Colin Davis’ second recording—itself an audacious undertaking—of Les Troyens basically jump-started the LSO Live label which was spurred into existence to document Davis’ London Berlioz to begin with. And then Les Troyens, the third or fourth album in the series, sold north of an unbelievable 100.000 copies*—at a time and in a business where 3000 sold copies are worthy high fives. Most remarkable, as is the recording itself, if you are very serious about your Berlioz.

A Wondrous Great

Colin Davis, for—and because of—all his achievements, was prone to uncritical reverence and veneration. This will only increase now, while his death is still fresh and the sense of loss acute. But there is no need to find every recording—even where it concerns his core-repertoire—superb. Too many of them simply don’t make that leap from “proper” to “superb”. Almost every Colin Davis recording of the last ten years was immediately and highly recommend (especially by the traditionally fawning British music press). Eventually Davis had to duck, to avoid being hit by the Grammy and Gramophone Awards that were liberally thrown at him. I wonder, though, how few of these recordings are regularly pulled off the shelves, even by those who instinctively enthused about them. I know I was susceptible, too: I have always looked forward to his new releases with eager hopes, and often ended up wanting (and pretending) to like them more than I somehow did… inoffensively excellent though they usually were. Davis’ undeniable musicianship and indeed greatness must lie somewhere else than the surface-excitement of his recordings.

Davis is not an overt ‘interpreter’, although he certainly shaped the music he performed. His musicianship tends not to draw attention to itself, he was hardly flashy, and—except in the almost accidental Sibelius-comparison above—you would never find him mentioned in the same breath as Leonard Bernstein or Leif Segerstam or Mikhail Pletnev. At his best, you don’t notice Davis much. At his not-so-great, his performances sound dull or unmemorable. Bernard Haitink or Herbert Blomstedt are not overtly exciting, hair-raising conductors, either. But that’s no parallel that links them to Davis, especially octogenarian Davis. The former—Haitink—seems to have gone from mellow to a concentrated musical flame with age, while the latter fascinates by revealing musical structure over the course of a work. That’s not my impression of what Davis did either in concert or on recordings. If anything, I’d liken Davis to Riccardo Muti: an amiable, gracious cruiser with continually broadening tempi and automatic, endless respect from his musicians.


available at Amazon Elgar, Enigma V.
BR Klassik

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available at Amazon Elgar, Sy.1 Dresden

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The LSO could play Elgar in its sleep—and so they did. I don’t care much for his LSO Live recordings of the first two Symphonies (the reconstructed Third has novelty value and feels more alert). His Dream of Gerontius with the Londoners, too, sounds like the melancholic, beautiful, sappy, and utterly lukewarm oratorio the work’s detractors claim it is. David Rendall, the tenor, isn’t doing much to overcome the tame, indifferent feeling to it all. And Davis’ arguable advantage over the stalwart Boult and Barbirolli recordings (EMI, both)—Anne Sofie von Otter’s very satisfying contribution—is too little to merit excitement. But there are two Elgar recordings with Davis—and more unlikely and perhaps because of that more alert orchestras—that do merit such excitement: The detailed, elaborate Enigma Variations with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, for one (BR Klassik)—additionally attractive because of a rare recorded Vaughan Williams-outing by Davis: A grim and fervent interpretation of the Sixth Symphony. Better still, assuming Elgar is your focus, is the First Symphony (coupled with Berlioz Overtures) played by the Dresden Staatskapelle (Profil Hänssler).


available at Amazon
W.G.Mozart, Oboe (& Flute) Cto., Sy.32,
C.Davis (G.Wand) / F.Leleux (I.Grafenauer) / BRSO
BR Klassik

available at Amazon
W.T.Mozart, Die Zauberflöte,
C.Davis / Royal Opera House
Keenlyside, Röschmann, Damrau et al.
Opus Arte Blu-ray

Davis certainly wasn’t an interventionist conductor. He was a kindly, genial man with innate musicality. Perhaps it isn’t a coincidence that his Mozart holds up so well… as do the recordings where he collaborated with soloists rather than taking the lead. Most of Davis’ Mozart radiates with a perfectly natural warmth, neither trying hard, nor taking anything for granted: artlessness at its best, comparable to other subtle greats like Günter Wand. Most conveniently comparable on a disc from the archives of the Bavarian Radio, where Colin Davis conducts the Oboe Conceto (François Leleux) and Symphony No.32, K318, while Wand conducts a performance of the first Flute Concerto (Irena Grafenauer). Davis’ Mozart-collaboration with Alicia De Larrocha and the English Chamber Orchestra produced quickening no-nonsense Mozart delight in the ten great concertos (RCA, oop). His classic Mozart opera recordings also still sparkle, despite the considerable stylistic changes that have taken place in Mozart-performances over the last 30 years. His (Damrau-enhanced) 2008 Magic Flute shows that his Mozart-magic had lost none of its luster decades later.

When I heard Colin Davis in concert, it was often with Mozart: With Mitsuko Uchida, Uchida and Radu Lupu, in New York, or Nikolai Znaider in Munich for example. The memory that stands out of these and other non-Mozart occasions is the way he made music with his orchestras and soloists more than the music itself.

Under Davis—here as elsewhere—everything sounded proper and in place; everything was above criticism. Enjoyment—of a very safe and ad usum delphini kind—is virtually guaranteed with him. He gently elicits quality… he does not dig or squeeze it out of the orchestra. He takes what he can get from the players (which is plenty, in any case), but perhaps not more.

Perhaps he was an even greater pleasure to work with than to listen to—in any case I left Davis-performances with a smiling feeling from having born witness to a joyful musical partnership… which might be an apt summary of what Davis did and why he was so beloved.

Colin Davis reviewed on ionarts:

Munich, BRSO, N.Znaider, Mozart, Elgar (jfl, 30.10.08)

London, LSO, R.Lupu, Mozart, Nielsen (RRR, 4.10.09)

London, LSO, N.Znaider, Sibelius (RRR, 2.7.08)

New York, NYPhil, Uchida & Lupu, Mozart (jfl, 1.4.07)

New York, NYPhil, M.Uchida, Mozart, Haydn, Schubert (jfl, 26.3.07)

Assorted Mentions

Apart from the repertoire above, here are some gems—famous and not—that should not be overlooked:

Max Reger: Hiller-Variations & Ballet Suite, BRSO (Orfeo)
Britten: A Midsummer Night's Dream, LSO (Decca)
Tippett: Symphonies 1-3, LSO (Decca)
Bartók: Piano Concertos Nos.1-3, Kovacevich, LSO, BBCSO (Philips/Decca)
MacMillan: The Confession Of Isobel Gowdie, LSO (LSO Live)

(* Not Michael Jackson territory, admittedly, but then Michael Jackson didn’t record 5-hour obscure French operas)

An Index of ionarts Discographies

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