Sunday 14 April 2013

R.I.P. Sir Colin Davis, 1927-2013

Any regular readers I may have will by now be well aware of the great esteem - that almost seems too lame a description - in which I held Sir Colin Davis. Latterly peerless as a Mozartian, indeed well-nigh universally recognised 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 went far beyond those composers. (He was as highly esteemed in the music of Sibelius, but I am afraid that music remains a blind spot for me.) 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; I could go on and on, and some day probably should.

Living within London’s musical orbit as I do made Sir Colin an abiding presence in my personal musical life, given the opportunities I was afforded to hear him both with the London Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Opera. 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.

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 may even have been the last; I am not ghoulish enough yet to check.) It was recently released on LSO Live, and would surely make the most fitting of memorials for any of us to acquire. Even at the time, both performances seemed especially haunted by intimations of mortality and yet all the more strengthened by humanistic resolution.

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.

(P.S. The above represents my spontaneous appreciation, written as soon as I heard the news of Sir Colin's death. I thought there might be some value in leaving it as it was, rather than revising. However, a fuller, somewhat more detailed version may be read as an obituary here at Seen and Heard International.)