Sir Colin Davis - farewell to a champion of new music

Fulsome tributes are appearing around the world to Sir Colin Davis who has died aged 85. In his later years Sir Colin was revered for his towering interpretations of established masterpieces, but his commitment to new music also needs to be remembered. He was given little credit for his work as chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra from 1967 to 1971 laying the foundations that his successor Pierre Boulez built on so successfully. Indeed, as the following list shows, he was championing new music well into Boulez’s tenure with the orchestra: among the first performances – either world (wfp), European (efp), or UK (ukfp) – that Sir Colin conducted with the BBCSO were Shostakovich Cello Concerto No 2 (efp1966), Walton Capriccio burlesca (ukfp 1969), Thea Musgrave Clarinet Concerto (wfp 1969), Hugh Wood Cello Concerto (wfp 1969), Shostakovich Symphony No 2 (efp 1969), Gordon Crosse Violin Concerto No 2 (wfp 1970), Kurt Weill The Lindbergh Flight (ukfp 1970), Malcolm Arnold Fantasy for Audience and Orchestra (wfp 1970), Malcolm Williamson The Stone Wall: opera for Audience and Orchestra (wfp 1971), Gordon Crosse Celebrations (ukfp 1972), and Peter Racine Fricker Symphony No 5 for Organ and Orchestra (wfp 1976).

Sir Colin’s advocacy of the music of Sir Michael Tippett is also particularly noteworthy: he conducted the premiere of The Knot Garden in 1970 shortly before becoming music director of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and his recordings of the composer’s first three symphonies for Decca with the London Symphony Orchestra from the same period remain the definitive accounts of these overlooked masterpieces. Another less celebrated aspect of Sir Colin’s work was his devotion to young musicians: just two examples that received coverage here were his searing account with a student orchestra in 2006 at Snape Maltings of Elgar’s First Symphony – close your eyes and you would have thought the conductor was the same age as the players – and his workshop performance of the same work with the Chamber Orchestra Anglia in 2008 – “Oh you see, I don't worry about status'” – where I took the header photo. The critics were divided about Sir Colin’s conducting of the Götz Friedrich directed Ring at Covent Garden, but his 1976 Götterdämmerung provided my wife and me with a memorable wedding present. Thank you Sir Colin, and it is fitting that you have now joined the gods in Valhalla.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Photo is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2013.


Pliable said…
At a time when audience participation is classical music's new big thing it is interesting to note that two of the works dating from the 1970s in the list above involved audience participation - Malcolm Arnold's Fantasy for Audience and Orchestra and Malcolm Williamson's The Stone Wall: opera for Audience and Orchestra. What goes around comes around...
Philip Amos said…
There's a wee typo re years in line four, Bob.

This is one of the rare occasions when I see an obituary and truly mourn. The last time was not long ago when I read of the death of Jacques Barzun, the polymathic and generally astonishing historian of ideas who left us at the age of 104.There's a connection here, for one of Barzun's passions was Berlioz - his friend Auden joked that Barzun wasn't aware of the existence of any other composer. It was a bit of an obsession, I must say. He wrote Berlioz and the Romantic Century, and Sir Colin visited him in New York for consultations on Berlioz. There is another connection, and that is Davis and Barzun were both on their different paths towering figures of a sort that has nigh on died out. I can't think of anyone with us now who comes anywhere close to Barzun's polymathic mastery of ideas - I recall a fellow historian saying he'd just looked at Barzun's bibliography and it had thoroughly depressed him. And very few conductors of the stature of Davis. That is why I mourn.
Pliable said…
Philip, thanks for that - typo now corrected.
David said…
Was only just dipping into Kenyon's history of the BBCSO and wondering, as you do above, how much new music CD conducted during his shortish tenure.

It's extraordinary that so few of his Tippett recordings are around now - having been able to download the Third Symphony, I found - preparing for Friday's BBCSO performance conducted by Brabbins - that the Second isn't even available in that format.

By the way - I only point this out because I myself was told of the error in my use of the word not so long ago - 'fulsome' actually means 'excessive or insincere'. I hope that's not what you meant!
Pliable said…
David, thanks for that. The absence of Sir Colin's Tippett recordings from the catalogue which you so rightly highlight, is, I fear, just a sign of the times.

Your pointing out my misuse of 'fulsome' is appreciated and does highlight an interesting point. I have become increasingly aware of the overuse of certain adjectives in connection with classical music - legendary, towering, masterly, celebrated etc etc.

BBC Radio 3 presenters are by far the worse culprits, but I am also guilty. So recently I have been making a conscious effort to expand my written vocabulary, but not, as you rightly point out, always with total success. But better, I think, one misused fulsome than ten more iconics!
Steve said…
Fortunately, Sir Colin's recordings of the first three symphonies can be heard on Spotify. I will be listening to them today.

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