Back in April 1962, Arthur Jacobs met a young English conductor, Colin Davis, who'd recently been appointed music director of Sadler's Wells. (Read Gramophone's obituary of Sir Colin who died on Sunday.)
'The clamour for operatic records sung in English,' wrote Philip Hope-Wallace in his February review of the Sadler's Wells excerpts from Carmen, 'is far greater than one might suppose by merely looking at catalogues.'
With which pronouncement firmly in mind, I directed my footsteps to the stage door of Sadler's Wells and sought out Colin Davis. Of the Sadler's Wells 'highlights' records he has so far only conducted Carmen (Bryan Balkwill, Alexander Faris, William Reid and Vilem Tausky have shared the six others), but he is the musical director of the company. As such, he is primarily responsible for maintaining the standards of the only regular source of opera-inEnglish in the record catalogue.
Most opera conductors have gone through an apprenticeship as a répétiteur, coaching the soloists of an opera house for their roles. But this requires fluent skill as a pianist, and Mr Davis is by training a clarinettist who cheerfully describes his piano-playing as 'abysmal' (an exaggeration, I suspect). He did his National Service as a bandsman clarinettist in the Household Cavalry (managing to complete his term just before the band got its horses back, shortly after the War!). Afterwards, his determination to be a conductor led to his being 'out of work for five years' (his own phrase) while his wife, the soprano April Cantelo, was the breadwinner. But he became assistant conductor of the BBC Scottish Orchestra in 1957 and won acclaim in 1959 for taking over two Festival Hall performances of Don Giovanni from Klemperer at a day's notice. In 1960 he took over the Glyndebourne performances of The Magic Flute when Beecham was unable to appear.
Still only 34 today, he first conducted at Sadler's Wells in 1958 and became its musical director last year. In conversation with him I naturally mentioned the newly released record of 'highlights' from Carmen, and I was somewhat critical of its vocal standard. Without acrimony he replied: 'You shouldn't have heard the record! It wasn't meant for people like you.' He insists that there is a certain 'Sadler's Wells public' and that this is a 'Sadler's Wells performance' which does not attempt to compete with the international complete recordings.
I argued that this approach was to make opera-in-English a permanent poor relation of opera-in-the-original, instead of a different but equally worthy interpretation. I doubted whether Germans and Frenchmen, buying not merely excerpts but complete recordings of Italian opera in their own languages (with such stars as Fischer-Dieskau), considered they were buying an inferior product. I have felt Sadler's Wells poorly served by what Mr Davis calls the 'light music boys' of HMV, who issue sleeve-notes which are mainly puffs. (Sir Malcolm Sargent's Gilbert and Sullivan issues are handled by 'serious music boys'!) But Mr Davis admires the emphasis which his HMV producers place on clarity of words and story.
Utterly absorbed as he is in the world of the theatre, Mr Davis is not entirely a friend of the gramophone and of what he calls 'sitting at home cold'. At a theatre, he says, 'you have washed, put on a tie, caught a bus and gone. You make a gesture. You meet the opera halfway.' Many acclaimed opera recordings he sees (and others, even their admirers, will agree here) as remote from the hazards of the actual stage. Beecham's tempos in Carmen, he says, would be impossibly slow in the theatre. In general, however, pace tends to get quicker in recording because the singers, performing softly into microphones, a few feet away do not have to project words to the man at the back of the gallery.
Mr Davis is also suspicious of the artificial perfection of studio opera recordings (he was careful to except recorded versions of actual performances, such as those of Toscanini) achieved through the use of many tapes. In a vigorous but amiable denunciation of opera critics, who in his opinion are mostly quite unable to judge what actually goes on in a theatre, he reserved a special denunciation for one critic's fondness for making comparisons with records in his notices of live opera.
Of course Colin Davis is keen to make more opera records himself! Who would not be? After this month's Festival Hall performance of Berlioz's Beatrice and Benedict he is to record the performance for Oiseau-Lyre. 'Then,' said I, 'you must be performing it in French?' 'No, in English!' he replied with a grin. 'The French hate Berlioz anyway.' Already, of course, he has recorded with distinction and Roger Fiske, writing in these columns exactly two years ago in praise of his Philharmonia record of Mozart Serenades and Dances, said it was 'extraordinary that this would be Colin Davis's first record for one of the major companies. He has of course to overcome the traditional prejudice the British feel against their own conductors.' The honourable distinction of having first recorded him belongs to the World Record Club.
Were there, I asked, any senior conductors to whom Mr Davis feels indebted? 'I learnt all the classical repertory from Sir Adrian Boult as a kid,' he replied, meaning from Sir Adrian's broadcast performances. Ambitions? 'My ambition is to be a good operatic conductor,' replied Davis, firmly anchoring himself to his present task and declining to speculate about the future. There is, he feels, so much that a conductor has to know and do, and do it when young – otherwise 'when you're old enough to know how, you're too old to do it , like being married.'