Sir Colin Davis
Sir Colin Davis, who has died aged 85, was one of the grand and cerebral orchestral conductors of the English tradition. He inherited his baton directly from Sir Thomas Beecham and, regardless of fashion or popularity, stuck resolutely to understated elegance both on and off the concert platform.
In his youth Davis had been a somewhat arrogant clarinettist who was convinced that he could triumph on the podium. However, having achieved success he seemed bemused at the plaudits that came his way, on one occasion shaking his head in disbelief at a standing ovation. He claimed to have no specialist repertoire, but Mozart and Berlioz were ever-present favourites. In his 81st year he was championing the music of James MacMillan, conducting the premiere of the composer’s 90-minute St John Passion in April 2008.
Tippett was another composer with whom Davis was widely associated, and he conducted the premieres of The Knot Garden (1970) and The Ice Break (1977); but Davis’s interpretations of Bruckner and Mahler were equally revealing occasions, particularly when directing his beloved London Symphony Orchestra.
Over the years he held top jobs at Sadler’s Wells Opera (now ENO), the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Opera, Dresden Staatskapelle, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic. But it was at the LSO that he graduated to the status of self-effacing and revered elder statesman, offering insightful and measured readings of the grand symphonic repertoire without resorting to unnecessary hype or hyperbole.
When he officially retired in 2006, after a decade as principal conductor, he was afforded the title of president of the orchestra, returning in that capacity to direct yet more spectacular musical triumphs and making a perfect counterpoint to the bombastic Valery Gergiev, who had succeeded him.
Acclaim had not always come easily. Succeeding Georg Solti at Covent Garden was widely predicted to be accepting the ultimate poisoned chalice, and so it proved to be: he was booed by the audience after conducting Fidelio, Don Giovanni and Tannhauser and reacted by booing back and sticking out his tongue at the paying public.
Officially he shrugged off the setbacks: “There are various ways of looking at the career of a conductor,” he once said. “One is that you have to survive one humiliation after another”; but privately he was a sensitive soul and easily wounded. Despite these difficulties he remained with the Royal Opera for 15 years, introducing British audiences to, among others, Jessye Norman. Ultimately he had the last laugh, becoming the first Briton to conduct at Bayreuth (Tannhauser in 1977).
If he was wide-ranging in his choice of repertoire, Davis was more dogmatic about musical styles. For example, he denounced the period instrument movement as “an emotional cock-up”, later clarifying this unusually unguarded comment by saying: “It wasn’t a heresy. It was an entertainment... It’s interesting in a certain way but too much of it came out of books... You’re not going to get to the bottom of a Brahms symphony that way.”
And getting to the bottom of a symphony – whether one by Brahms or anyone else – was what marked out Davis as a conductor. His concerts offered remarkable and painstakingly deep insights into some of the most difficult repertoire. A performance of The Trojans by Berlioz in 1993 left even Bernard Levin running out of superlatives. It was, Levin wrote, comparable with Klemperer’s Fidelio in 1961: “From the first bars, it was clear that this experience would be something to treasure always.”
Davis was acutely aware of his own mortality, confessing to Anthony Clare, the radio psychiatrist, that not a day passed without him thinking about his own death. “Every piece of music is a rehearsal of one’s life,” he mused. To reinforce the point he chose to conduct Mozart’s Requiem at his 80th birthday concert. In the first-floor drawing room of his elegant town house in north London he kept a life-size skeleton which sat gazing passively at the youngsters below kicking balls around Highbury Fields. “Just a reminder...”, the softly-spoken maestro would tell visiting journalists, leaving the words hanging uncomfortably in the air.
Colin Rex Davis was born on September 25 1927 at Weybridge, Surrey. His father, Reginald, was all but destroyed by the First World War and ended his working life in an “unsatisfactory position” at a bank. His mother, Lillian, had her hands full with seven children. There was music in the family home, but not of a professional quality, and the ever-present threat of the bailiff loomed ominously.
As a boy, Colin heard a recording of Hans Pfitzner conducting Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic: “I remember saving up five shillings to buy myself my first yellow copy of the score. I took it home, eagerly opened it and music burst out of the pages. It was intoxicating,” he said. Thanks to a benevolent great-uncle, he was educated at Christ’s Hospital. He joined the Royal College of Music at the age of 16, but his clarinet studies were interrupted by National Service with the band of the Household Cavalry based in Bath (where in 1969 he would return as joint artistic director of the city’s music festival with Michael Tippett and Jack Phipps in succession to Yehudi Menuhin).
Like his hero Berlioz, Davis failed to master the piano (“I don’t actually like the instrument much,” he once said). As a result the Royal College would not entertain his conducting ambitions. He taught himself the art by observing Fritz Busch from the clarinettist’s perch in the Glyndebourne pit, all the while gaining experience by directing choral societies. In 1957, on his third attempt, he was offered the post of assistant conductor with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. The following year he won a standing ovation directing Menuhin in the Beethoven Violin Concerto at Bath.
His big break came in 1959 when, at short notice, he stepped in for Otto Klemperer in Don Giovanni at the Royal Festival Hall, with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Joan Sutherland. He did the same for Beecham a short time later, conducting The Magic Flute at Glyndebourne; and in July 1960 he was the subject of a profile in Time magazine which hailed him as “the most promising conducting talent to appear in England since Sir Thomas Beecham himself rose to fame”.
But by the mid-1960s Davis was the quintessential angry young man, notorious as a bad-tempered firebrand and prone to tantrums and clashes with his orchestral musicians. At the same time his first marriage disintegrated. In 1967 he succeeded Sir Malcolm Sargent at the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and in 1971 took over from Solti at Covent Garden.
The reinvention of his persona and discovery of an inner calm was a long and painful process, and often carried out in the public gaze. As he freely admitted: “I ended up doing battle with myself for many years.” Fortunately, his posts in Boston (1972-84) and Bavaria (1983-93) reduced his profile in Britain, so that by the time he returned in 1995 as principal conductor of the LSO – an orchestra whose players had voted overwhelmingly not to employ him 30 years earlier — it was as a mature master. His sole condition of accepting the post was that he only made music; others did the hiring, firing and other chores normally associated with a music director. Now he was in front of a new generation of orchestral musicians who were delighted to find that the ogre had become a man at ease with himself; while still full of steel, he now used a velvet glove to enforce his will.
The results were tremendous. LSO/Davis concerts in the early 2000s became the hottest tickets in town as audiences queued at the Barbican to discover unheard of insights into the great romantic repertoire. Here was a conductor who really could offer revealing insights into the music, enjoying an unforgettable and seemingly unending Indian summer at the end of a turbulent yet triumphant career.
During the early years of the 21st century he was similarly rehabilitated at the Royal Opera House. Meanwhile, he became ever more generous with his time, conducting student operas at the Royal Academy of Music, committing more and more of his repertoire to disc and humouring journalists and others in search of his quiet words of wisdom.
Throughout his life Davis found solace in knitting, showing off his thick cardigans with blushing pride to interviewers. His two elder sisters had probably taught him the art, he said, although he could not remember a time when he did not knit. “They tyrannised me and dragooned me into knitting clothes for their dolls,” he would recall, still knitting his own clothes in his eighties while settling ever deeper into what The New York Times called his “donnish introspection”.
Widely read, he fought back from his personal and professional setbacks through authors such as Hermann Hesse, Hermann Broch and Nikos Kazantzakis. In 1995 he was crowned Pipe Smoker of the Year, and in later years expressed dismay at the increasing restrictions on smoking. A pet iguana lived in the family kitchen.
Despite old age and infirmities, Davis continued conducting. After the death of his second wife in 2010 he was back in the pit within days conducting Mozart’s The Magic Flute and declaring that Mozart is “life itself”. In February 2011 he suffered a fall as he mounted the podium at Covent Garden. However, in September 2012 he accepted his doctors’ advice and stayed away from a nevertheless packed 85th birthday concert held in his honour at the Barbican.
Among many awards and honours, Colin Davis was appointed CBE in 1965, knighted in 1980 and became a Companion of Honour in 2001.
His first marriage in 1949, to the soprano April Cantelo, ended in 1964. He married secondly Ashraf Naini, known as Shamsi, his Iranian former au pair, in 1965. He is survived by their five children and by a son and a daughter of his first marriage.
Sir Colin Davis, born September 25 1927, died April 14 2013