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Sir Colin Davis Anthology
Soloists
London Symphony Chorus & Orchestra
rec. live, 1999-2009, Barbican Hall, London. DSD.
Texts & translations included
8 Hybrid SACDs, 4 CDs (Les Troyens); 1 DVD
LSO LIVE LSO0766 CD/SACD/DVD [13 discs: 765 mins]

Sir Colin Davis (1927-2013) enjoyed a long and fruitful relationship with the London Symphony Orchestra; he first conducted them in 1959. The relationship was crowned in 1995 when he became the orchestra’s Principal Conductor. He held that role until 2006, after which he became their President. Davis’s extensive discography includes many recordings with the orchestra, not least their many contributions to his Philips Berlioz cycle. LSO Live’s handsome tribute box includes a number of recordings that were made during his series of concerts under the banner ‘Berlioz Odyssey’ with the orchestra in 1999 and 2000. We’ve reviewed quite a few of these recordings on MusicWeb International down the years and, where appropriate, I’ll include links to the reviews by colleagues. However, it should be noted that there are some recordings which are here appear on disc for the first time, most notably the Vaughan Williams Fourth Symphony. The performance of the Berlioz Te Deum was the only major Berlioz work not issued separately by LSO Live and currently the only other way to obtain it is in the Berlioz Odyssey boxed set to which I’ll refer in a moment.

Rightly, several of the composers – though not all - with whom Sir Colin was closely identified during his career are featured. Almost inevitably, Berlioz dominates the set and this is no surprise given that Sir Colin was the pre-eminent Berlioz interpreter of his – or, arguably, any – generation. The performances offered here all feature as well in another LSO Live box, The Berlioz Odyssey. I bought all the individual recordings when they first appeared and I admire them, even if Davis’s first cycle for Philips is by no means displaced; both cycles are richly rewarding. The one recording that was new to me is that of the Te Deum, which I have not previously heard. The Berlioz Odyssey box was the subject of a comprehensive appraisal not long ago by Paul Corfield-Godfrey (review). I really wouldn’t dissent from Paul’s views. The LSO Live account of the Symphonie fantastique is a fine one, paced by Davis with all the benefit of long experience of the work. No one will be disappointed by this performance.

There’s much to admire in Les Troyens. Though the original Philips set had a strong cast the LSO Live set also benefits from some formidable performances, not least from Ben Heppner as a truly heroic Aeneas. Opposite him, the Dido of Michelle de Young is a memorable assumption of the role while Petra Lang is an intense Cassandre. The remainder of the cast doesn’t have a single weak link. With the LSO and London symphony Chorus on top form, this is a notable performance of Berlioz’s huge score. The recording is very good: the soloists, chorus and orchestra are all recorded with impact while the offstage brass and percussion are ideally distanced. Incidentally, this time round I noticed a little detail I’d missed before. Listed in the booklet among the offstage trumpet/cornet players is one Alison Balsam; in 2000 she would have been near the start of her career. The recording of Les Troyens is on CDs whereas everything else in this box is on SACDs

I’m afraid the Te Deum is a bit disappointing. There’s nothing wrong with the singing and playing of the London Symphony Chorus and LSO respectively; both are on top form. Still less is there an issue with the interpretation. For my taste, the voice of the South African tenor, Colin Lee sounds somewhat narrow in timbre and lacking bloom but he sings intelligently. The problem, however, is the venue. For a start, the Barbican doesn’t have an organ in situ so far as I’m aware and the instrument used here – electronic, I’m sure - simply lacks the presence and sonority, especially when played loudly but also in the quiet passages. Also, the acoustic of the hall is confining. It’s a great pity that the performance wasn’t taken to a large, resonant building, as was done for Sir Colin’s magisterial account of the Grand Messe des morts (review). Arguably, the venue for that recording, St Paul’s Cathedral, had rather too spacious an acoustic but that’s preferable to the Barbican, which was too restrictive for the Te Deum. Perhaps this explains why the performance was never released separately. It’s valuable to have it in this box as Sir Colin’s last recording of the work, but his Dresden version is much to be preferred. When this review was in final draft, however, my Seen and Heard colleague, Mark Berry drew my attention to his review of the concert performance here preserved. Mark's report is well worth reading because he was less bothered than I was by the sound of the organ, nor did he feel that the Barbican acoustic was unduly confining. His comments convey the excitement and all-round excellence of the performance which, I would agree, have transferred to disc.

The discs come in hardback book-style packages. All the Berlioz recordings are in the first packet, with the exception of Les Troyens, which constitutes the fourth packet of discs. Also in the first packet is the DVD, Colin Davis - The Man and his Music. This documentary was made in 2012 by Reiner Moritz and it’s a very superior example of the genre. There is a good deal of archive footage, ranging right across his career, of Sir Colin in action. There are also interviews with various people who are well placed to comment on Davis and his achievements. Among the contributors are Sir Simon Rattle, who describes Davis as “a force of nature”, and Sir David Attenborough, who comments on Sir Colin from the standpoint of a music lover. Sir Nicholas Kenyon was, of course closely associated with Davis from his time running the Barbican. A number of LSO members past and present also contribute. Woven into the narrative as a framework is a substantial amount of reflection and recollection from Sir Colin himself. It makes for absorbing viewing and gives an excellent portrait of Davis which will repay more than one viewing, something which can’t be said of many such artist profiles.

The second pack of discs includes Dvořák’s ‘New World’ Symphony in a performance which we haven’t reviewed on MusicWeb International. It’s a good one. The first movement is excellent and is followed by a lovely account of the Largo which is distinguished above all by a poetic rendition of the famous cor anglais solo by Christine Pendrill. The third movement benefits from sharply articulated rhythms and a beguiling Trio while the finale is very dynamic. I don’t believe this performance is still available as a single disc though you can buy it as part of the three-disc LSO Live set which includes the composer’s last four symphonies. It’s a welcome inclusion in this box. Sibelius is one of the composers with whom Sir Colin was closely identified and he left us three complete symphony cycles on disc, of which his very fine LSO Live set was the last. I reviewed the set back in 2017 when it was reissued in a box set which had the considerable additional bonus of a Blu-ray Audio disc containing all the performances. I was impressed then by the performance of the Sibelius Second Symphony and also the two tone poems which have been included here.

The final item in this portion of the Anthology is especially interesting because it’s a recording that LSO Live has not previously issued; furthermore, the work may well be new to the Davis discography. Vaughan Williams’ Fourth Symphony receives a terrific reading from Davis and the LSO. The volcanic first movement is full of teeming energy and the full-on recorded sound adds to the impact of the performance, which is full of fire. There follows an expertly judged reading of the slow movement. Here the LSO offers refined playing in the subdued passages which dominate the movement but they and Davis make the climaxes ardent. The Scherzo is really incisive and then excellent tension is achieved in the transition to the finale. This explodes into life and the performance that follows is memorable – the LSO brass section is on trenchant form. Despite the excitement which the music generates Davis keeps the performance rock-steady and he and the orchestra achieve great clarity. To be honest I find it hard to understand why such a fine performance was never issued separately – perhaps there was no suitable coupling available. Anyway, its appearance here is greatly to be welcomed: it’s a highlight of the Anthology.

The third package of discs is devoted to English music. The account of Elgar’s ‘Enigma’ Variations is an excellent reminder of how effective Davis was in Elgar’s music. (We don’t seem to have reviewed his LSO Live accounts of the two symphonies or the Payne reconstruction of the sketches of the Third Symphony: all are well worth hearing.) In this ‘Enigma’ Davis skilfully characterises each individual pen portrait. So, for example, in ‘R.P.A.’ the LSO strings dig deep with satisfying results. ‘Troyte’ is excitingly done. ‘Nimrod’ is very fine indeed. Davis leads an expansive, expressive performance which has truly noble breadth to it. By contrast, ‘Dorabella’ is played with great charm. In the finale Davis and the LSO do full justice to the brilliance and colour of Elgar’s writing. There’s also a very good performance of the Introduction and Allegro for Strings. The work was composed for the LSO and in 1905 Elgar himself led the orchestra’s string section in the premiere. In this present performance, taken from two performances one hundred years later, the LSO strings of the early twenty-first century demonstrate their corporate virtuosity in a fine performance.

There has surely never been a more committed advocate for the music of Sir Michael Tippett than Sir Colin Davis. It’s right and proper, therefore, that the Tippett-Davis association should be commemorated here with A Child of Our Time. I first got to know the work, on LP, through the 1975 recording that Davis made with BBC forces and a stellar line-up of soloists. I was very interested to see, when I read his review of a recent reissue of that recording, that my colleague Paul Corfield Godfrey felt the 1975 Davis performance was “undesirably hasty”. Measured purely against the clock, Sir Colin’s pacing of the work seems to have been fairly consistent: he took 64:28 in 1975; Paul noted that a 2003 Dresden performance, which I’ve not heard, took 65:19 (review); this 2007 LSO reading plays for 63:59. Confession time: I’ve never quite ‘cracked’ A Child of Our Time, though I certainly respect both the music and Tippett’s motives in writing it. I don’t know why this should be; perhaps both music and words are just a bit too earnest? I do love the Spirituals, however: not only do I find the arrangements superb but also the composer’s idea to insert these as gathering points, rather in the way Bach used chorales in his Passions, was nothing less than inspired.

The present performance puts the best possible case for the work. I find Davis intense and dramatic in his projection of the work, right from the start when he ensures that ‘The world turns on its dark side’ is full of ominous foreboding. Just occasionally I thought that, in his desire to emphasise dramatic urgency, he pushed the tempo a little too much: the first Spiritual, ‘Steal away’ offers a case in point. On the other hand, the ‘Chorus of Persecutors and the Persecuted’ is as urgent as it ought to be and the incisive, fiery singing of the London Symphony Chorus seals the deal. If anything, ‘The Terror. Burn down their houses!’ is even more potent and biting. The soloists all do well though the expressiveness of soprano Indra Thomas is somewhat compromised by the excessive vibrato which clouds her diction. Steve Davislim makes a fine job of ‘I have no money for my bread’, which he sings with eloquence. The concluding ‘Deep river’ ensemble is a very moving conclusion to a fine, dramatic performance of Tippett’s heartfelt work.

The final disc in this packet is devoted to Walton. Davis’s performance of Belshazzar’s Feast fairly crackles with electricity. Peter Coleman-Wright may not be the most imposing soloist I’ve heard in this work but he sings well. He articulates the famous “shopping list” vividly, if a little too swiftly for him to relish the words. The work of the London Symphony Chorus is exceptional, while the LSO is on fabulous form. The march section in which various Gods are praised is taken at a cracking pace by Davis; it’s brash and exciting with the LSO percussionists illustrating the various deities with relish. After a fine, if rather swift, semi-chorus section (‘The trumpeters are silent’) the concluding chorus is exuberantly festive with the choir jubilantly incisive and the full panoply of the LSO unleashed. A tumultuous performance.

Sir Colin is equally suited to Walton’s First Symphony. Back in 2006, when this recording was first released, my colleague Kevin Sutton was very enthusiastic about it (review). It’s easy to see why. The first movement, one of the greatest in twentieth-century symphonic literature, is taut, gripping and assertive in Davis’s hands. The interpretation is full of drama and the dramatic thrust is emphasised by the edge-of-the-seat playing of the LSO. This magnificent movement is given the full treatment in this thrusting, powerful performance. The Scherzo is no less successful. There’s all the necessary rhythmic drive and the explosive timpani are thrilling. In the slow movement Davis and his players bring out the melancholic lyricism really well. Here Davis shows all his skill in controlling the musical line. The account of the finale is bracing and extrovert; it’s a perfect demonstration of the LSO’s virtuosity. The big, rhetorical gestures are convincingly handled. Way back in 1966 the LSO of the day under André Previn set down what many people, myself included, still regard as a definitive recording of Walton’s First (review). I’d venture to suggest that Davis and the LSO of 2005 give the 1966 performance a run for its money.

It’s appropriate to say something about the presentation of this set. All the recordings are offered as hybrid SACDs with 2.0 mixes and either a 5.0 or 5.1 mix. The one exception is Les Troyens which comes on CDs with a 2.0 mix. I played all the SACDs using the 2.0 mix and obtained very good results. As I’ve mentioned, the discs are packaged in four hardback-book cases and each package contains full details of the works in question, including good notes and, where appropriate, texts and translations. In addition, there’s a fifth hardback entitled Sir Colin Davis: The Man Behind the Music. This contains a generous appreciation by David Cairns, written comments by Davis himself and many photographs, reproduced letters and other biographical material. All of this documentation is first class, albeit it’s printed in a very small font.

So, this is a splendid overview of Sir Colin’s term as Principal Conductor of the LSO. Regrets? Yes, a few. You can’t please everyone, but had I been compiling this set perhaps I would have included not Les Troyens, splendid though that recording is, but instead a slightly shorter Berlioz major work – say L’Enfance du Christ or La damnation de Faust – occupying 2 discs. That would have left room for something else, perhaps his 2008 performance of Beethoven’s Mass in C and/or the 2007 recording of Mozart’s Requiem. Arguably, the most grievous omission is Sr Colin’s unfailingly stylish Haydn though, happily, some significant Haydn recordings are available individually on LSO Live, including a splendid set of late symphonies (review)

But nothing can detract from the fact that this is a most handsome tribute to one of this country’s finest conductors. LSO Live has done Sir Colin proud and, moreover, they have done so at a price which makes this set an outstanding bargain, even if, like me, you already have a few of these recordings in your collection.

John Quinn

 
Contents
Disc 1 [65:30]
Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Symphonie fantastique [57:16]
Béatrice et Bénédict: Overture [8:14]
rec. June & September, 2000
Disc 2 [61:14]
Hector BERLIOZ
Les francs-juges: Overture [12:41]
Te Deum [48:33]
rec. September 2006 & February 2009
Disc 3 (DVD) [60:00]
Colin Davis - The Man and his Music (a documentary by Reiner Moritz. Includes subtitles in French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Japanese).
Disc 4 [44:18]
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Symphony No 9 in E Minor, 'From the New World'
rec. September 1999
Disc 5 [59:15]
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Pohjola's Daughter [14:32]
Symphony No 2 in D major [44:43]
rec. September & October 2006
Disc 6 [43:44]
Jean SIBELIUS
The Oceanides [12:00]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Symphony No 4 in F minor [31:44]
rec. June/July 2008 & September 2008
Disc 7 [47:56]
Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Variations on an Original Theme, 'Enigma' [33:08]
Introduction and Allegro for Strings [14:48]
rec. January 2007 (Variations); September & December 2005
Disc 8 [63:59]
Sir Michael TIPPETT (1905-1998)
A Child of Our Time
rec. December 2007
Disc 9 [80:20]
Sir William WALTON (1902-1983)
Belshazzar's Feast [34:18]
Symphony No 1 in B flat Minor [46:02]
rec. September 2008 (Belshazzar); September & December 2005
Discs 10 -13 [240:29]
Hector BERLIOZ
Les Troyens 
rec. December 2000



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