Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Sir Colin Davis, 1927-2013

I seem to be writing a lot of memorial posts lately. It is one of the writer's duties that comes with surviving for a reasonable span of life. I keep being reminded of the line from the poet and playwright known to history as Shakespeare: "Friends hid in death's dateless night."

Sir Colin Davis, the orchestra conductor, has long been a "friend." I put "friend" in quotation marks ('inverted commas' if you're British) because, of course, I did not know him personally. But we can have friends who have shared some of our time on earth and touched us deeply  through their artistry, even if we never met them in this life on an illusory plane of existence.

I don't remember when I first became aware of Sir Colin as a musician -- well, he was plain Colin Davis at the time; he received his K only in the late '80s, I think. But I do remember when he registered on my consciousness as someone important. It was back in the 1970s, and I was hardly knowledgeable enough to compare performances -- for the most part I still am not -- but when I heard his recordings of the late Mozart symphonies with the Staatskapelle Dresden, I said to a friend who appreciated such things, "This man has seen the light."

As much as I loved the performances I never acquired them on compact disc (I think I had the black discs for a while, but they've gone to vinyl heaven). I heard them again recently, thanks to the CD buyer at my town library, bless him. Decca has reissued them in a four-disc package. I was ravished all over again when I heard them.

I've also recently heard his late Haydn symphonies from the same period. They are wonderful in their own way. Sir Colin, unlike lazy or clueless conductors, understood the significant differences between Haydn and Mozart and his conducting reflected that: Mozart is feminine, lunar, yin;  Haydn masculine, solar, yang.

Sir Colin remained an active conductor until very recently. I have at least a dozen recordings of performances he led, and there are so many more to be savored, I trust. He had an ability to characterize a great range of music, unlike conductors who are fine on their own special patch (for instance Sir John Eliot Gardiner -- brilliant in Bach cantatas, poor in the Romantic repertory). But -- and this is to his credit -- Sir Colin knew his strengths and, perhaps, his weaknesses. He was a superb interpreter of music from the Classical and Romantic eras, but as far as I know never recorded most 20th century masterworks: no Prokofiev or Shostakovich or even Ravel.

Every post-mortem tribute ends with some variation on "he will be greatly missed." Sir Colin Davis will be, and by many besides me.


green mamba said...

His recording of Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique" with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, done in the early seventies I believe, is considered one of the best versions of that piece.

Rick Darby said...

Green Mamba,

I must have a couple of dozen recordings of performances he led. They include some Sibelius and Elgar on the London Symphony Orchestra's own label. The sound quality of the LSO discs has been much criticized -- it seems London's Barbican Hall, the LSO's home base, is a tough place for recording. If the discs are not among the best for sound quality, though, the interpretations and playing make up for it.