Sir Colin Davis (1927 ~ 2013) remembered


© Chris Green, May 2013



This review remembers a great musician who died in April 2013. The musician? Sir Colin Davis

Colin Davis had a connection with a county just over the water from the Netherlands: Suffolk connection and, for a brief period, conducted the Ipswich Orchestral Society in the 1950s. He had been demobbed from the Household Cavalry and he and other musical friends were seeking work. Local choirs and orchestras provided the training ground for the young Davis (born in Weybridge, near London in 1927). Studying at the London’s Royal College of Music, he made his début as a clarinettist in 1949 and then began climbing the greasy pole of professional conducting with a Glyndebourne debut in 1960.

Sir Colin’s role in British musical life was immense.  Alongside his commitment to the London Symphony Orchestra (of which he was President), he forged special relationships with the Royal Opera House, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and the English Chamber Orchestra, as well as mentoring many young performers and conductors at the Royal Academy of Music and the Guildhall School in London.

By the early 1960s, Davis was recording- albeit for a small label called World Records Members subscribed to copies and amongst the orchestras was a band of freelancers called the Sinfonia of London. That they included some fine session musicians meant a great deal, and their recordings were soon Choice items. Later, World Records was taken over by EMI Records, and so the wheel turns round full circle as many of these early recordings come in a box set of six CDs featuring Colin Davis (EMI 4 63989 2). He was internationally renowned for his interpretations of Mozart, Sibelius and Berlioz, and music lovers across the world have been inspired by his performances and recordings. Not surprisingly, these early recordings feature music by Mozart and Berlioz but also a stunning performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.

Sir Colin first conducted the LSO in 1959 and became Principal Conductor in 1995. He was the longest serving Principal Conductor in the LSO’s history and has been at the head of the LSO family for many years.  His musicianship and his humanity have been cherished by musicians and audiences alike. With the LSO, Sir Colin made some fine recordings, usually from live performances at The Barbican in London. Space does not permit me to do more than sample this valued series, and here better to start than Britten’s opera, Peter Grimes recorded in London in 2004 and issued on three CDs in a gripping performance (LSO0054). With a strong solo line-up, it is the singing of the London Symphony Chorus that stands out as does the LSO’s playing, especially in the Four Sea Interludes.

Hector Berlioz was another composer with whom Davis had a special affinity, and amongst the recordings he made with the London Symphony Orchestra is a finely balanced performance made in London’s Barbican in December 2006. L’enfant du Christ requires a strong team of soloists to tell the New Testament story and this Davis achieves with French tenor Yann Beuron as Narrator and Centurion. I often think this is not the easiest of choral works to approach, largely I suspect to the way Berlioz composed it –growing haphazardly over a number of years according to David Cairns’s excellent CD liner note. The aspect that immediately grabs the listener is the way Davis carefully phrases the orchestral playing which never dominates the vocal soloists. This remains another treasure of the Davis legacy (LSO 0606).