Sir Colin Davis (1927-2013): The Recorded Legacy
In his eloquent
obituary of Sir Colin Davis for Seen and Heard Mark Berry has, understandably,
focused on Sir Colin’s work in the opera house and on the concert platform.
He was fortunate enough to see Davis ‘live’ on many occasions. However,
many of us only experienced his art through radio, television or recordings.
Fortunately, Sir Colin has left us a very substantial and high quality legacy
of recordings. This short article in no way purports to be a survey of his recordings
but is merely a brief overview.
It is, perhaps, worth starting by recalling the main posts that Sir Colin held
during his illustrious career because his recording career was inextricably
linked to most of those appointments:
- Sadlers Wells Opera: Chief Conductor (1960). Musical Director (1961-65)
- BBC Symphony Orchestra: Chief Conductor (1967-70). Principal Guest Conductor
- Royal Opera House, Covent Garden: Musical Director (1971-86)
- Boston Symphony Orchestra: Principal Guest Conductor (1972-84)
- Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra: Chief Conductor (1983-93)
- Staatskapelle Dresden: Conductor Laureate (1990-2013)
- New York Philharmonic Orchestra: Principal Guest Conductor (1998-2003)
- London Symphony Orchestra: Principal Conductor (1995-2006). President (2006-13)
Davis’s recording career began in the late 1950s. Many of his earliest
recordings were made for EMI, which recently issued a 6-CD boxed set, ‘Sir
Colin Davis - The Early Recordings’ (63989-2). However, in the 1960s he
became an exclusive Philips artist and made many notable recordings for them
including, of course, his first Berlioz cycle with the LSO, which was a landmark
series in so many ways. Several operas were recorded by Philips during Davis’s
time at the Royal opera; these included a number of Mozart operas; a 1976 Tosca
and the first - and so far only - recording of Tippett’s The Midsummer
Marriage, a recording which subsequently migrated to Lyrita (review).
Concert pieces were not neglected either and from this period comes, among many
other things, a 1966 Messiah (review).
Davis also made a number of recordings for Philips outside the UK, including
a 1974 Concertgebouw traversal of Symphonie Fantastique, which is still
highly regarded (review).
Also from Amsterdam came a wonderful, stylish set of Haydn’s ‘London’
Symphonies, recorded between 1975 and 1981. In Boston during 1975 and 1976 Davis
made the first of three Sibelius symphony cycles that he was to record and very
fine it was. He later recorded the complete symphonies twice with the LSO, first
for BMG RCA (review)
and later for LSO Live. Both of these LSO cycles also included Kullervo.
During Sir Colin’s time with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra he
recorded extensively with them for BMG RCA. From those years comes a 1984 Messiah
There was also a cycle of the Brahms symphonies & concertos. Göran
Forsling had reservations (review)
but Christopher Howell enjoyed it more (review).
Another product of the Bavarian years was a live 1991 account of Verdi’s
From the same year comes a Mozart Requiem (review).
There’s also what constitutes something of a rarity in Sir Colin’s
discography: music by Mahler in the shape of a recording of the Eighth Symphony,
no less, from 1996 (review).
His studio recordings with the Staatskapelle Dresden included a splendid 1984
‘Emperor’ Concerto with Arrau for Philips; some late Mozart symphonies
and a complete Schubert symphony cycle (review).
However, there have also been quite a number of live Dresden recordings issued
in recent years including a 1998 Berlioz Te Deum (review)
and Sir Colin’s second recording, from 2003, of Tippett’s A Child
of Our Time (review).
Sir Colin’s work with the LSO after 1995 brought about a wonderful Indian
summer as far as recordings were concerned. There was some studio work, such
as their recording of Tippett’s The Rose Lake (review).
Most of their recordings were for the orchestra’s own LSO Live label,
however, and the discography was extensive, including a third recording of Messiah,
the third Sibelius cycle, a recently completed Nielsen cycle, Britten’s
Peter Grimes (review),
and James MacMillan’s shatteringly eloquent St John Passion, a
work which I think I’m right in saying is dedicated to Davis (review).
There were also some very fine recordings of Elgar’s symphonies, including
Anthony Payne’s completion of the Third. If The Dream of Gerontius
disappointed that was more a question of the soloists rather than of Sir Colin’s
However, his 2005 recording of Walton’s First Symphony is extremely good
It is, surely, for his recordings of the music of Berlioz above all else that
Sir Colin Davis will be most warmly remembered. I think I have every one of
them, including a few made outside of his two LSO series, and whenever I appraise
a recording by another conductor - many of which are very good - I find that
time and again Davis sets the benchmark. There have been many strong champions
of Berlioz’s music but has any other conductor done more for this composer
or demonstrated such empathy with and understanding of his output? If Davis
had only recorded his Philips cycle that would have been counted as a major
achievement - and we must not overlook some other recordings, such as his 1993
Vienna recording of Roméo et Juliette (review).
However, in 2000 Davis embarked on a major series of concerts of Berlioz with
the LSO and the orchestra had the vision to record many of the performances
which, issued on LSO Live, formed the basis of a near-complete second cycle.
The recordings met with general acclaim and included such gems as Les Troyens
Roméo et Juliette (review)
and Symphonie Fantastique (review).
The cycle isn’t quite complete: we must hope that somewhere in the LSO
archives there are performances of the Te Deum, Nuits d’Été
and the Symphonie funèbre et triomphale. One major gap
has just been filled, however: only recently a splendid new recording of the
Grande messe des morts arrived for review. My review has already been
submitted and I can assure readers that the recording is a fitting, if now sadly
posthumous, testament to the career of one of the finest conductors of the post-war
Sir Colin’s work will surely live on through his many fine recordings.
Happily there is at least one more to come: a concert performance of Weber’s
opera Der Freischütz, taped in 2012, is to be issued by LSO Live
in the next few weeks. That’s eagerly awaited and we must hope that other
new recordings await issue. Furthermore, it would be particularly fitting if
the BBC and LSO Live could cooperate to issue some of Davis’s broadcasts
on disc. One that comes to mind straightaway is the performance of Beethoven’s
Missa Solemnis from the 2011 Proms (review).
Issuing that performance on CD would be just one way of celebrating Sir Colin’s