Remembering the conductor's exceptional contribution to the recording catalogue
The memorial tributes to Sir Colin Davis, who passed away on Sunday, April 14 at the age of 85, will be many, and no doubt deeply felt. He was, without question, one of the great maestros of our day, known for the warmth and generosity of his personality and the depth and integrity of his music making.
One of the most powerful gifts that any conductor can give us is to turn audiences on to a composer who may not yet have had his justly deserved day in the sun, and in that way, Sir Colin was one of the most powerful. Just as Leonard Bernstein had given us the kind of definitive performances of the music of Mahler that changed musicians’ and audiences’ understanding of the composer’s importance, Sir Colin championed the cause of Berlioz with a fire that burned with passionate commitment and incomparable understanding. The great French Romantic, who struggled so painfully in his own time with neglect and miscomprehension, found in Sir Colin a century later an advocate who utterly transformed how modern listeners understand his works. Sir Colin’s Berlioz became a touchstone that all future musicians can turn to for guidance and inspiration. Similarly, Sir Colin’s interpretations of the music of Sibelius rang with authority and authenticity, more often than not crossing into the realm of revelation.
In the years that I worked at Universal Music, my assignment at Deutsche Grammophon meant that I didn’t work close up with Sir Colin, who recorded for DG’s sister label, Philips. But some of his recordings were, and remain, among my most treasured. Philips’s legendary Berlioz cycle with Sir Colin and the London Symphony will long remain one of the greatest achievements in the history of the recording industry. Though I possess numerous recordings of the Symphonie Fantastique, none satisfies as consistently and deeply as Sir Colin’s. To Sir Colin I owe the greatest thanks for revealing to me the splendours of such other Berlioz masterworks as the Requiem, La damnation de Faust, Roméo et Juliette and Les Troyens.
Sir Colin’s Sibelius Symphonies cycle with the Boston Symphony is required listening for anyone drawn to the Finnish composer’s music – or not yet drawn to it for that matter! Oh, and what great Mozart he conducted – recordings of his symphonies and operas are a treasure chest of gems.
It was actually Sir Colin Davis’s recordings of the ‘Paris’ and ‘London’ Symphonies with Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw that first introduced me to the wonder and joy of Haydn’s music – I will never hear Symphony No 87 or the Drumroll without thinking of Sir Colin with a smile. More recently, thanks to Spotify, I heard Sir Colin’s Stravinsky ballet recordings with this same orchestra for the first time and was mesmerised by their power, colour and exuberance. I will want to hear them again soon.
Before penning this little tribute I listened to Sir Colin’s luminous recording of Sibelius’s mysterious and deeply spiritual Seventh Symphony with the BSO and it drew tears. Like so much of Sir Colin’s work, the performance has a quiet intensity and expressive clarity that you can only feel grateful to experience. Thank you, Sir Colin, for these and countless other musical memories!