Sunday, May 26, 2013

The young Colin Davis gets off to a running start

The early-career Colin Davis

MOZART: The Abduction from the Seraglio, K. 384: Overture (with concert ending)

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Colin Davis, cond. EMI, recorded c1961

by Ken

In this week's preview, I took a stab at describing the "happy traits" of Colin Davis's early career: a natural sense of musical flow coupled with a preference for having the music play with determination and make its points naturally. By way of illustration, I offered the vivid performances of Mozart's Idomeneo and Clemenza di Tito Overtures from CD's c1961 EMI LP of nine Mozart overtures, as contrasted with the still-pretty-good but noticeably more forced performances from his c1989 BMG CD of 12 Mozart overtures. We also heard the Magic Flute Overture from both Mozart overture records along with the performance from Davis's 1984 Philips recording of the complete opera.

As I've said before, very likely a bunch of times (at least I hope so!), there aren't many things I value more in the realm of art than the alert musical instincts of a talented musician. That innate talent still needs a whole lot of developing, including in the direction of expanding, both widening and deepening, in order to provide a true underpinning for an artistically productive career. But without this innate musicality as a starting point, where is there for the would-be musician to develop?


However, for this week I want to stick with what he seems to me he have done unarguably well. Like the confident, songful performance of the Abduction from the Seraglio Overture we just heard. If I had to pick, say, four overtures from the Seraphim Mozart LP -- just from memory from all those years of listening -- that exemplify the virtues of those performances, in addition to the Idomeneo and Clemenza Overtures we heard last week, I might well include the Abduction. I would certainly include the Marriage of Figaro Overture, an easy piece to make work on a basic level, but one that isn't often performed at the level of frothy enjoyment that Davis managed here. I don't have that on CD, though, so instead we're going to listen to the Seraphim Così fan tutte Overture, which has similar performance virtues, along with the c1998 Dresden Figaro.

MOZART: Così fan tutte, K. 588: Overture

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Colin Davis, cond. EMI, recorded c1961
MOZART: The Marriage of Figaro, K. 492: Overture

Staatskapelle Dresden, Sir Colin Davis, cond. RCA-BMG, recorded c1998


From the same period as the EMI Mozart overtures there was an LP of Rossini overtures, which again aren't that difficult to make work in a basic way but aren't so easy to make work at the level that Davis did. we're going to hear the frothy Signor Bruschino Overture (the one in which the fiddlers click their bows on their music stands) and L'Italiana in Algeri -- a Sunday Classics favorite, which had the distinction of commanding an entire "Anatomy of an Overture" post in October 2012).

ROSSINI: Il Signor Bruschino: Overture

ROSSINI: L'Italiana in Algeri: Overture

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Colin Davis, cond. EMI, recorded 1961


Again, eventually we'll have to deal with the "Davis Berlioz" problem, which is to say the strange situation by which a conductor with strikingly little claim to distinction as a Berlioz conductor came to be regarded as the leading Berlioz conductor of his time and the one who spearheaded the widespread appreciation of this previously much undervalued composer. But for now we can focus our attention on his early Berlioz efforts.

Early on, while Davis was still making a name for himself, he was tapped to conduct recordings of L'Enfance du Christ and Béatrice et Bénédict, works that were still little-enough-heralded as to qualify for inclusion on Decca's L'Oiseau-Lyre sub-label devoted to enterprising repertory. In 1962, when the recording of Béatrice was made, the opera was virtually unperformed, though the overture was well established as a concert piece. As I indicated back in June 2010, when we gave Béatrice considerable attention (a Béatrice preview piece and a main post devoted to it and Berlioz's "dramatic symphony" Roméo et Juliette, "Berlioz tackles that most basic and intimate issue, the terrifying vulnerability of owning up to loving"), it's a stupefyingly difficult piece to make work, but the young Davis solved at least some of it the way he did much other repertory he tackled then: by, basically, just doing it.

Not having listened to the Béatrice recording in a while, I had hopes when I got hold of the CD edition that the performance would show up strong. Although that unfortunately hasn't been my impression. Still, some of it does work. The Overture, for example, isn't often performed with more vividness or relish. I thought we would conclude with that.

BERLIOZ: Béatrice et Bénédict, Op. 27: Overture

London Symphony Orchestra, Colin Davis, cond. L'Oiseau-Lyre/Decca, recorded 1962


We're going to return to his somewhat problematic but on the whole surprisingly successful recording of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde.

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