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Sad loss: The foremost English conductor of his time

Sir Colin Davis died today, aged 85.

He was among the most successful British conductors of all time, serving as music director of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and, finally, the London Symphony Orchestra.

He also had close relationships with the Boston Symphony Orchetsra and the Dresden Staatskapelle.

A clarinet player by training, he was always a musicians’ musician, one who aroused the affection of his peers and achieved performances that were sometimes symbiotic.He will be mourned in every corner of the musical world.

Sir Colin  Davis conducting Beethoven

© Chris Christodoulou/Lebrecht Music & Arts

More here. Media reaction here. A life on record here.

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  1. James Brinton says:

    God, this is so sad…

  2. That’s a lost. No doubt. First time I saw him was on tour with Dresden Staatskapelle, also my first London Symphony concert was conducted by him. He is in a better place now.

  3. James Brinton says:
  4. Michael Hurshell says:

    We will all miss you, Sir Colin.

  5. Paul D. Sullivan, Boston US says:

    I remember seeing Sir Colin Davis, in the past, leading the BSO at Symphony Hall. A huge loss and a very sad day indeed.

  6. itrinkkeinwein says:

    Has anyone read the New York Times’ masterful, authoritative obit? Quote: “It was not until 1992, with his masterful interpretation of the Sibelius cycle with the London Symphony, that his authority became apparent and his fame began to spread.”

    • In was not until 1992 that New York recognised what the world already knew. How very parochial.

      • itrinkkeinwein says:


        No discussion of the ROHCG years, no mention of the BRSO, no apparent awareness of the famous RPO Rossini disc (1959?) or of the huge Philips discography.

        No research.

      • itrinkkeinwein says:

        The RPO Rossini disc was made at Abbey Road in April, June and October 1961. Not sure which label.

        This was when “his fame began to spread” — not 30 years (!) later, as written in the NYT obituary.

      • C’mon Yankees, even here in south america Colin Davis was know much time before 1992!. I’m 38 years and since I was a child in the 70′s there were records made by him at my place.

    • Daniel Farber says:

      The NY Times missed, among many other things of course, the Sibelius recordings with the Boston Symphony 15 years earlier, but the great Michael Steinberg, in the 1960′s, writing in the Boston Globe, did not miss Sir Colin’s mastery of Messiah and Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. Sir Colin was authoratively great early, middle,and late.

    • This also from the NYT “article” on the passing of Sir Colin Davis: “There was no immediate word on survivors.” Are a deceased person’s relatives supposed to issued an immediate press release to notify the New York Times about relatives of the deceased who are still alive? One up, I suppose, from the NYT’s usual excuse for a gap in reporting: “Phone calls from the Times were not returned”.

      Thankfully, comments on the NYT’s website have been damning in their criticism of this very poorly written and researched piece. Perhaps – ! – an apology from either newspaper or author will be forthcoming.

      PS I understand that it was not until Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) conducted Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in East Berlin on December 25, 1989 as part of a celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall that “his authority became apparent and his fame began to spread”.

  7. Rodney Punt says:

    His recordings of British composers and above all of the orchestral and operatic works of Berlioz for the Phillips label remain exemplars for me. I heard him conduct only once live, in Germany. He led a very majestic Beethoven Eroica, perhaps the most spacious I ever heard. I loved him also as a human being. RIP, Sir Colin.

  8. His Elgar 1 with the Dresden Orchestra is up there near the top.

  9. I’m afraid that if we tried to correct all the incomplete career histories that various sources are coming up with today, we’d have little else to do.

    Far better to celebrate Sir Colin’s life and legacy.

  10. His 2003 Elgar 2nd with the Boston Symphony in Symphony Hall remains in my memory one of the greatest performances I’ve heard in 50 years of concert-going.

  11. I am thankful that we have these “lights” in our midst and it is painful when they “wink ” out. I watched the “Berlioz Requiem” clip posted above. For such a huge ungainly piece as it can become, Sir. Colin let it unfold with all its beautiful fragile intimacy. The hardest part for me was the last 2 minutes- the tower bells and Sir Colin motionless- eyes closed, the work of music done.

    That he shared his love of music, the passion for getting it right, the skill to make it work; we are truly the richer for it. I can think of no higher calling- to make this place and time a brighter place.

  12. James Forrest says:

    The NYT piece is a disgrace. Unbelievable. But it does not reflect on all music lovers on this side of the “pond”. We knew and admired Sir Colin’s music making long before 1992. Fortunate, in particular, the BSO and their audience to have had so much of his artistry. Fortunate, too, this correspondent to have had the opportunity to hear numerous of those performances.

  13. Michael Browne says:

    On my one-and-only visit to Berlin in April 1983, I bumped into Sir Colin as we walked towards the Philharmonie where he was to conduct the BPO in Berg and Brahms (First Piano Concerto with Claudio Arrau). I congratulated him on his recent knighthood and begged him to bring his Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra to our wonderful new Royal Concert Hall in Nottingham. He bore this brief intrusion on his ‘quiet time’ with gentle good humour. Four years later, in Nottingham, he and his Bavarians gave a wonderfully poised Mozart 39 and an incandescent Symphonie Fantastique. For that evening, and many, many others in my fifty years of concert-going, thank you Sir Colin…..

  14. A conductor whose recorded repertoire got me interested in orchestral music in the first place.

    Having the pleasure to hear him conduct Berlioz live was a treat (thanks little brother whose taller than me for the tickets, hubby and I had a super evening) although that was not the first time I’d heard him conduct, just the last.

    Even though you are gone, your discography survives to influence and inspire more musicians. You gave me a reason to practise my oboe and take singing seriously. Your records, amongst the discs of those whom you now share the celestial spheres inspired me to get my music O level, listen to a wide range of music whilst studying for music A level, and then beg, borrow or steward for as many concerts as possible as an undergrad (whilst expanding my collection of recordings).

    Rest in Peace Sir Colin

  15. Andrew Green says:

    My earliest recollection of Sir Colin on disc were his marvellous Beethoven 7 and (even earlier) an LP on World Record Club with the Sinfonia of London, with wonderful performances of Beethoven (Fidelio Overture), Wagner (Siegfried Idyll), Brahms (St Anthony Variations) and quite the best Mendelssohn Hebrides I have ever heard. No wonder his BSO disc of Mendelssohn years later was so good. My favourite recordings of his? Haydn from Amsterdam, all his Berlioz and Tippet’s Midsummer Marriage from ROH. The opening of the latter is one of the most exciting few minutes of recorded music I know.

    There was also a wonderful televised performance of Tippet’s Concerto for Double String Orchestra, B&W and mono, but stunning nevertheless, in a programme about Tippet, with the gorgeous violin solo in the slow movement played beautifully by Eric Gruenberg.

    Some of his excellent work in recent years was with the National Youth Orchestra, leading to memorable concerts. They loved him, as did we all. Rest in peace, Sir Colin.

  16. George Kaloutsis says:

    Very sad news.- I remember Colin Davies not yet a sir, seeing him at the helm of the orchestra of Snt Martin in the Fields Orchestra. A small orchestra. I don’t know if it even exists now… This was the beginning! Then he specialized in Berlioz. I dare say it was he who brought him back to life, when he was regarded as garrulous composer with little meaning! I also remember the tremendus production of the Troyens at the Covent Garden. His contrbution to music making left an indelible mark. Always unprepossessing and modest he let music itself talk of itself… He will be greattly missed!

  17. I agree with all the praise and plaudets written above. I also agree with the barbs thrown at the NY Times who assume the entire classical music world exists only in Manhattan. As for me, I find it most interesting that of all the works this “musician’s musician” could have chosen for his final performance, it was Handel’s Messiah. Some may have said, “how trite, or boring, or ordinary.” But Sir Colin, in a tribute by one “musicians musician” to another, simply said “it’s so good.” How true that is. RIP Sir Colin.

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