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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 (1971-75)
- 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 (review); 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 (review). 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 Falstaff (review). 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 (review); 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 conducting (review). However, his 2005 recording of Walton’s First Symphony is extremely good (review).
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 (review), 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 era.
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 remarkable career.
John Quinn