Sir Colin Davis: a conductor without compare

The London Symphony Orchestra's longest-serving conductor has died at the age of 85.


Browsing through the obituaries and tributes published today marking the death of the conductor Sir Colin Davis, I came across something I didn’t know about him – despite having wanted to be a conductor from an early age, when he arrived at the Royal College of Music on a scholarship, he was barred from taking conducting classes. Why? Because he didn’t play the piano. The idea that you can be disqualified from learning to be a conductor because you aren’t an accomplished pianist (a not necessarily relevant musical skill) really jarred with me – not least because, having shown a bit of musical promise in other areas, from my early teens I was pushed into regular and gruelling piano lessons to avoid being held back in any potential future musical study, and I hated it. Looking back in 1991, Davis said: “conducting has more to do with singing and breathing than with piano-playing". He was, of course, quite correct.

As Andrew Clark has pointed out in this excellent piece for the FT (£), Davis was a conductor who questioned the maestro’s right to absolute autonomy over the music and musicians. Kept out of the conducting class, he came at the craft from the side – conducting first the Kalmar Orchestra, formed by a group of fellow players, and then the Chelsea Opera Group – and got his big break in 1959 when Otto Klemperer fell ill and Davis conducted Mozart’s Don Giovanni at the Royal Festival Hall in his place. Although he was felt to have mellowed in his later years, the Davis of the Fifties and Sixties was supposedly “a bit hard and tactless”, as he put it later on. Perhaps his advancement was slowed by the perception that he was less-than-fun to work with, but as he grew older, he gained a solid reputation for a collaborative style of conducting.

Davis was well-known for his championing of particular composers – Mozart, Berlioz and Britten spring particularly to mind – but it was his recordings of Tippett where I first encountered his lucid, passionate approach to music. During his 15-year stint as musical director at Covent Garden, he put on Tippett’s The Midsummer Marriage and ushered through the world premiere of The Knot Garden. Perhaps obsession with Tippett is a peculiarly adolescent habit (I spotted the pianist Stephen Hough admitting to something similar on Twitter earlier today) but in my teens I just couldn’t get enough of Davis’s Tippett recordings. There was something languorous yet vital in the way his interpretations put across the melodic, fugal feel of Tippett’s work – contemporary enough to make a 17 year old brought up on a hard diet of Bach sonatas feel like they’re rebelling, but with a depth of harmony that isn’t entirely alien. I wasn’t alone by any means – Tippett himself recognised Davis’s gift for his music, telling Alan Blyth in 1972 that "Colin has an instinctive understanding of what I want without our ever having discussed it. I just feel that as far as interpreting my music is concerned, he's the tops."

To date, Davis is the London Symphony Orchestra’s longest-serving conductor, at the helm from 1995 to 2006, and became its president in 2007. As has been widely noted by his obituary writers, he steered the orchestra to one of its most stable and fruitful periods. Even once his own eminence in his field was well established he didn’t lose his desire to bring lesser-known composers to public attention, memorably working with James Macmillan on a number of performances and recordings.

Davis will be remembered as a great musician, to be sure, and a grand maestro of the 20th century, but part of his charm as a personality lay in his honesty and eccentricity. As the Guardian’s tribute notes, he lived with his family and “a pet iguana that would terrorise visiting colleagues by landing on them unpredictably” and the FT points out that as well as playing with his pet he liked to relax by knitting and chopping wood.

In 2007, Davis gave an interview to the BBC in which he touched on the subject of music and death. He said: “Every time you give a concert, time is suspended: you're mastering it; time is not the enemy. It doesn't put off death, unfortunately, but it gives you a very good time while you're still alive." He might be gone, but his music will continue to give us a good time.


If you’ve never seen Davis in action, it’s worth watching him conducting Yehudi Menuhin and the London Symphony Orchestra in Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major in 1962. His facial expressions alone are worth it.

Colin Davis during a performance in 1965. Photograph: Getty Images

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State