Sir Colin Davis (1927-2013) holding his pet iguana (with possibly the skeletal remains of a critic looking on!)
Thursday 20 August 2020, BBC Radio 3 @ 7.30 p.m.
Recorded at Royal Albert Hall on 13 September 2001
If I may be anecdotal for a moment, Colin Davis was my first interviewee, in 1992. I spent the week leading up to our meeting getting increasingly nervous – needlessly as it turned out given Sir Colin could not have been more welcoming or friendlier, and he even poured me a cup of the tea his PA had arranged. Beforehand, beginning to doubt my ability to hold a conversation with a distinguished musician, I’d asked friends for question suggestions. Here are two: “Ask him if he really likes Mozart” and “Does he plan to record the complete Respighi?”. I knew then I was alone! Still, the interview went well, it was published, and the “modest and unassuming” maestro I had read about proved to be exactly that. (I was soon placing a tape recorder in front of Vernon Handley, André Previn and Leonard Slatkin, then numerous others … and not only conductors.)
Among the composers that cropped up talking to Sir Colin were Bruckner, Sibelius, and Tippett. The latter’s The Rose Lake was the centrepiece of this 2001 Prom, music that Davis and the LSO had premiered in 1995 (and I was also at the subsequent RCA recording sessions – producer Andrew Keener, engineer Tony Faulkner – reporting for the Friends of the LSO), a score that started life as a potential Fifth Symphony. Rose Lake is certainly symphonic in ambition, a continuous dawn-to-dusk piece lasting half-an-hour, and what might seem like incidental motifs and insignias do coalesce as the Senegalese lake changes colour to pink when the sun is at its height – a phenomenon that the composer witnessed first-hand. Rose Lake is a quixotic and suitably vibrant score – expressive, rhythmic, ecstatic – always engaging, as well as retaining the capacity to surprise after numerous listens. This revival from the home-team of performers was more than worthy.
Opening the Prom was Sibelius’s The Oceanides – from Greek mythology – preceded by the conductor’s invitation for the audience to take a minute’s silence to remember the horrific terrorism that was/is ‘9/11’, which had occurred in New York City just two days previously. The Sibelius, a play-of-the-waves tone-poem with subterranean shadows that come to the surface at the climax, edgily and stormily, was brought off with all of Davis’s seasoned instincts for this composer’s music.
Closing the concert was Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony (No.6) – a compassionate music-lover’s reading without interpretative fad, but it would be idle to suggest that the music was allowed to speak for itself, rather here’s an exemplar of the art that conceals art – to reveal joy (unforced), reverie, merrymaking, something elemental, and final thanksgiving. The LSO glowed in response to its then Principal Conductor.