Showing posts with label Sir Colin Davis. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sir Colin Davis. Show all posts

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Colin Davis In His Own Words - new film to screen tomorrow

Shortly before his final illness, Sir Colin Davis talked at length to the film director John Bridcut about his life, beliefs, passions and working method.

The poignant interview, Colin Davis: In His Own Words, will screen on BBC4 tomorrow night, Friday 3 May, at 8pm. The production team has pulled out all the stops to finish the film as a timely tribute to the late, great and, as it turns out, rather reluctant maestro. Don't miss it!

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Monday, December 31, 2012

And JDCMB's top ten posts of 2012 are...

Here are the top ten stories on JDCMB this year. Good to see that among the matters that interested you most were some of the world's top conductors, several exciting young artists and quite a few of the quirky JDCMB pieces that you won't find anywhere else - not least, the April Fool's Day spectacular. Below, listed in reverse order.

Thank you, everyone, for joining me through the roller-coaster highs and lows of 2012 and here's hoping that in 2013 the comets shine bright!

10.  Socks for the Lilac Fairy?                                                  
 Why do balletomanes knit socks for their favourite dancers, but Lang Lang doesn't get gloves from the pianophiles?

Life-enhancing ways to behave at a concert.


Introducing Angelo Villani.

In which I sit in on the great maestro's conducting masterclasses.

Italian romantic in cravat triumphs at the UK's premier piano competition.

You're a pragmatic lot, dear readers, and you know when you're on to a good thing.

Or can there? A look at this year's finalists.

1 April, and it looked like we might all have to play to Gergiev. Delightfully, a few of you fell for this, lock, stock and subsequent red ears.

And in first place...

The maestro gets it all off his chest.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

A few more thoughts after the Sir Colin interview

The response to my interview with Sir Colin Davis has been fascinating to say the least. Those who have written/tweeted/blogged about it (special thanks to Boulezian and Unpredictable Inevitability) have been polarised, naturally, into those who agree with his words about the early music movement and those who don't. Though the latter have declared his words "insulting" and said they find his classical repertoire "boring" etc, there have,  to my surprise, been many more declaring themselves in full accord with him.

I have the impression his statements have been cathartic: many of us have been feeling this way for 30 years. But it needed a grand maestro to step up and speak out about some of the idiocies that have gone on in the name of "historical correctness" before anyone would take it on board.

Here's my own little journey. Back in the early to mid 1980s, as a student I found myself in places that now seem to me quite astonishing. By an odd series of coincidences I spent a lot of time in university holidays sitting, metaphorically, at the feet of people like Andras Schiff, Richard Goode, the Emerson Quartet and some experts on Schenkerian analysis in New York...

Then, come term-time, I was back in Cambridge being told that I was not allowed to play Bach on the modern piano - unless I would agree to play it with no dynamics, no pedal at all and a mode of expression only appropriate to a harpsichord. I promise this is not an exaggeration. That was rather a shock to the system, since - as you can well imagine - all I really wanted to do by then was to learn the Goldberg Variations.

Not that there was much chance to practise anything at all: so academic was the course that it involved a performance option only as one-seventh of one year of one's final degree, and the faculty seemed to believe - honest to goodness - that if you were going to play L'Ile Joyeux in your third year, there was no need for you to practise in the first two! All this accompanied by the immortal words "WE ARE NOT A CONSERVATOIRE". (Matched only by those of a London music college that I later attended for what turned out to be three weeks: "Well, we're not a university, you know - you can't just pick and choose..." Upon which, exit, pursued by a bear.)

The impression that lingered from that time was so negative, provincial, blinkered and anti-musical that it still rankles a quarter-century later. Today, though, I can recognise the good things I learned there too. These include a passion for Monteverdi (well, I already had that beforehand, but never mind); a familiarity with the Bach Cantatas that I would never otherwise have acquired; an inspirational course on German Romantic opera from Weber to Tannhauser (thank you, Prof Deathridge!); close-knit seminars on Gershwin and Schubert's Winterreise with Robin Holloway; and analysis with the late Derrick Puffett, the man who steered me - again by coincidence - towards Die tote Stadt.

Forgive the digression. In short, I found that the concentration on superficial details of instrument, articulation, lack of vibrato, etc, risked losing sight of the most important thing: the actual content of the music itself. There seemed an implicit assumption that nobody wrote music in order to express any form of emotion before about 1780. This is not to say that those superficial details of articulation, instrumentation et al are not important to some degree. They are. But they became an end in themselves - when they should have been only a beginning.

That was the 1980s for you: the era in which appearance became more important than substance. The era in which spin-doctoring, marketing and the hard-sell took over priority in place of quality content. The ingredients didn't matter, as long as you could sell it to the unsuspecting public. And all the government cutbacks at that time meant that it was far more practical - ie, cheaper - to use smaller ensembles so that you didn't have to pay so many musicians. If you could convince people that this was correct, so much the better. The giant performance of Handel's Messiah in Westminster Abbey that inspired Haydn to compose The Creation was quietly and conveniently ignored. Richard Taruskin has written much more eloquently than I can about how the HIP movement tells us more about our own time than it does about the 18th century.

But I don't believe that over time human nature has changed that much; music and its impact upon us hasn't changed that much either ("If music be the food of love, play on..." - Shakespeare); and if anyone doubts the importance of emotion in music, why don't they just listen to a bit of Monteverdi? Hear Orfeo's great aria 'Possente spirto', then try telling me its composer didn't write to express emotion and see if your ears don't turn red.

What counts most, ultimately, is authenticity of spirit. That means a full 360-degree understanding of the music's workings in terms emotional, spiritual, textual, historical, analytical, communicative, songful, expressive, harmonic, progressive, instrumental, linear, contrapuntal, technical, sonic, philosophical, inspirational and much, much more. It means acquiring the instrumental/vocal/conducting expertise to get this across without a struggle - which, as Sir Colin said, is where freedom really begins. Essentially it means fusing one's own powers as a musician with those of the composer, to empathise with a work and bring out the best in it, in a spirit that is faithful to its world.

I just listened to 30 different recordings of Schumann's 'Spring' Symphony for a piece in the April issue of BBC Music Magazine. My favourite? [drumroll]: John Eliot Gardiner with his Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique. This choice took me almost by surprise. But after listening to Bernstein, who made the slow movement sound like Mahler, Solti, who made the opening sound like Wagner, and Karajan, who just sounded like Karajan all the way through, here was a performance that sounded like - well, Schumann. (Buy the magazine to read more...)

I may be a HIP sceptic still. There is no doubt, sadly, that the movement has sometimes advanced the wrong people for the wrong reasons; it has promulgated approaches that may be radical, but that are often misleading, mistranslated or misinterpreted into going against the very grain of what it purports to do (see Sir Colin on Geminiani, or just read Leopold Mozart, to see how the words on 18th-century violin playing have been distorted for dubious ends).

It may have shaken away the Karajan-ness of Karajan, who (let's face it) was disliked for more than his music-making... But it has had the unfortunate side-effect of ghettoising the works of Bach, Haydn and Mozart so that few mainstream conductors dare touch them without applying supposedly "correct" mannerisms of phrasing, articulation and so forth - which often are not all that correct, especially when applied simply because they're a sound that's expected, rather than a concept that is properly thought through. Nothing is more dangerous than a little knowledge. I despair of ever hearing my favourite Mozart symphonies being played with any real gumption again, or without drums that sound like cornflakes packets, or without wince-worthy vibrato-less string tone - it's possible to make a good sound with no vibrato, of course, but frequently it doesn't happen. I am deeply unhappy about this: it's like being thrown into exile.

Thank almighty God that the odious phrase "authentic" was jettisoned after Rosalyn Tureck and her friends proved in the mid 1990s that there was no such thing anywhere, in any field. Still, there's also something inherently patronising in the term "Historically Informed" since it implicitly pre-supposes that everybody else is not. This is not true. The many great pianists who play Bach on the modern Steinway, Bosendorfer or Fazioli are perfectly well informed, often more so than their counterparts - they just choose to play on an instrument that can actually be heard in Alice Tully Hall. I'd defy any early music specialist to be better informed about Bach than, for instance, Angela Hewitt.

And soon I am going to Lucerne to hear Andras Schiff conduct the B minor Mass and I can't wait, because his performance of the St Matthew Passion with the Philharmonia a decade or more ago was the most inspiring, exciting performance I've yet heard of this work, shining out in technicolour with all its inner conviction, passion and spirituality.

I've often felt that too many supposedly "correct" performances are based simply on an orchestra turning off its vibrato and stringing up with gut. Bingo: two strokes and you're HIP.  On the other hand, hearing the OAE with Sir Simon Rattle doing Fidelio at Glyndebourne was simply magnificent. Besides, HIP orchestral musicians are often far better informed about the music they play, more passionately committed to their task in hand and generally more intelligent, upbeat and contributive than certain other strata of the profession who sometimes veer towards "Theirs not to make reply, Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die..." (Tennyson).

When HIP works, well played and deeply understood, it is fabulous. I would like to be the first to applaud JEG for his Schumann and his amazing Bach Cantatas series, which I'm potty about (I've also heard him screw up a couple of romantic operas over the years, but there is no reason why every conductor should be equally good in all repertoire, is there?). Ditto for Norrington: I'm a hundred per cent with Sir Colin on that total lack of vibrato - yowch! - and remember with sorrow an absolute carwreck of a Dvorak Cello Concerto at the RFH... Yet I've attended performances in which he's conducted Haydn's The Creation, Mozart's The Magic Flute (a Prom about 25 years ago), Schubert's Ninth and the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique - all of them thrilling, vivid and loving.

As for harpsichords, the playing of Andreas Staier has been a revelation. Just listen to the warmth, generosity and nobility of this:

Now, Staier plays equally wonderfully on a harpsichord, a fortepiano or a modern piano. And there's the rub. If the musicianship is good enough, the instrument stops mattering. Great musicianship transcends its medium. But if that great musicianship is not present, no amount of superficial "correctness" can ever replace it. So where does that leave HIP?

I'm sure there's a lesson in there somewhere. If there's a rapprochement taking place, if we are all starting to pull together rather than against one another, that is laudable. Chamber music playing is now being taught in Oxford (I don't know about Cambridge), while the music colleges today offer proper degrees, not just diplomas (or will do as long as they can continue to exist under the present government). Andras Schiff has recorded on early pianos and sometimes conducts from a harpsichord.

Alina Ibragimova plays solo Bach and more with inspired musicianship, great tone, yet no vibrato.

But the Emperor's New Clothes, even if they're looking a bit faded, are still being worn nonetheless. If Sir Colin's words can help to pull away the last remaining veils of illusion and refocus us on what really matters - the deep substance of the authentic musical spirit - then I'm happy to have been a channel through which he was able to do so.

Friday, March 23, 2012

When JD met Sir Colin Davis...

...he had a real go at the early music brigade. Blimey, guv. The results of this are in today's Independent. Still, you don't talk to a man like Sir Colin Davis for twenty minutes if you can talk to him for an hour instead, so after the video you will find something meaty on a great many more topics than that - including what Stravinsky told him about metronome marks and why it's great that young conductors are so sought-after now. You won't need to add mustard; there's plenty already. Meanwhile, if you want to hear Sir Colin speak at the ISM conference on 12 April, booking details are here.


It’s slightly disconcerting to interview a great conductor while sitting beside a skeleton. It hangs in a corner of Sir Colin Davis’s Georgian music room, the skull decorated by pieces of shiny paper, like a Christmas tree. “It’s a reminder,” Davis glowers.

Perhaps it is no wonder if Davis feels himself haunted and his time limited. He celebrates his 85th birthday later this year. His wife, Shamsi, who was a leading advocate and teacher of the Alexander Technique, died in 2010 in a north London hospice while he was conducting a performance at Covent Garden; the loss has been a heavy blow to him. But he shows no sign of abandoning his musical vocation: this spring, besides giving a concert performance of Weber’s operatic masterpiece Der Freischütz with the LSO, of which he is President, he is due to appear at the Incorporated Society of Musicians conference in an April event dedicated to his life and work. 

“I don’t have the energy I used to,” he insists. “Performing a big piece really takes it out of me now – afterwards one feels one ought to be put out to grass, like an old donkey. I’ve given myself the task of reading the whole of Shakespeare once again. I did it before because I thought I might die. But I’m quite sure I’m going to this time, so I’d better hurry up.” 

Yet behind this somewhat doom-laden facade, he’s lost little of his sparkle and none of his ferocious devotion to music. I’ve arrived at his doorstep armed with a plethora of questions about how he sees the future of classical music, but it is the state of the present that really works him up, especially the domination of the music world by those who, in his opinion, misunderstand what music is all about, or don’t understand it at all. And, naturally, the future depends on the present.

Reports of the death of classical music and the decline of audiences are very much exaggerated, in his view. “All I know is that the orchestra I work with is very much alive,” he declares. “It has good audiences, interesting performers, soloists and conductors, and it seems to be all right. But things are not usually what they seem, so one wonders. There have been, in my lifetime, three or four suggestions that we only need two point seven orchestras in London, or something utterly ridiculous like that – rather like having three point five babies. Statistics are stupid; they sometimes have no foundation in fact. We shouldn’t start really worrying about that unless people don’t want to hear music any more, and I don’t think that’s the case. A mass of people have never been interested in music anyway, and those that are are stubbornly in favour of it. It’s such an interesting invention that it’s always going to attract the more curious and the more emotional individuals. 

“The youth orchestras have never been so well attended,” he adds, “nor have they ever played so well. That goes for the symphony orchestras, too – the standard is incredibly high now and it won’t be because of that that things fail. The promise of new musicians and people perpetually coming into the profession keeps the standard up and the accusation that only old people go in for it is absolute nonsense.” 

But then we come to something that for a conductor whose fans adore his Mozart (he recently did Così fan tutte at Covent Garden) can’t help but be a major issue: the domination of 18th century repertoire by period-instrument  ensembles and specialists in “historically informed performance” which has had the unfortunate side-effect of scaring symphony orchestras away from classical music’s ultimate core repertoire of Bach, Handel, Haydn and Mozart - and often beyond. 

Davis, of course, has refused to be intimidated. It’s intriguing to find that one of the finest musicians of our day has no time whatsoever for this dominant trend. 

“I think they just hijacked that repertory to give themselves something to do and something new to do with it,” he insists. “The way they play Baroque music is unspeakable. It’s entirely theoretical. Most of them don’t play it because it’s deeply moving – they play it to grind out their theories about bows and gut strings and old instruments, and about how you have to phrase it this way or that way. Music isn’t like that, is it? At least, I don’t think it is. A great composer, especially someone like Mozart, does not fit into that. We’re not alive then - what music means to us now is probably different, in a limited way.” 

Focusing on academic correctness in minute details of phrasing and articulation, he adds, means that too often the deeper meaning of the music is ignored. “The articulation comes from the line you happen to be expressing. Of course it’s about expressing. When you get married you don’t go to the public library to look up what’s going to happen! It’s so stupid – especially in music which is so alive, such a living thing when people play it.”

“There’s Roger Norrington, who plays Berlioz’s Requiem without any vibrato – it must be a foretaste of purgatory. And John Eliot Gardiner can be very horribly theoretical about things. People may say ‘well, they didn’t play it with vibrato’. Perhaps not – but perhaps if they had, they would have preferred it! 

"Playing without vibrato is one of the musical colours available in romantic music – if you play something without vibrato sometimes it can give something a most unnerving effect. But to set out to play all these vocal melodies without vibrato – it doesn’t accord with so much of what was written.  Geminiani [Francesco Geminiani, composer and violinist, 1687-1762] wrote that you should play the violin as if it was the most beautiful voice you’ve ever heard. I’ve never heard a voice sing in squeegee phrasing, with no vibrato. I’ve been to performances where the instrumentalists played like that, but of course nobody sang like that – because you can’t! So it doesn’t make any sense.I suspect some of these musicians are emotionally retarded. They’re afraid to let go.

His own mentors included Sir Thomas Beecham, who invited him to work at Glyndebourne with him on Mozart, something that helped to establish the young Davis as a leading Mozartian. He was much influenced, too, by musicians such as the Amadeus String Quartet – “We had a great number of Jewish refugees, particularly from Vienna, and they taught us a very great deal. They had tremendous discipline. But it was also an emotional matter. I’ve heard Beethoven quartets played sort of a la baroque, very fast – it’s utterly meaningless. What’s the point of that music? If you go too fast you can’t understand it anyway. It’s barmy. But people forget that when I was a young man, there was this early music thing, but it didn’t have the hold on things that it does now. 

“People like Robert Donington, Thurston Dart and George Malcolm played old instruments when they felt like it, but it wasn’t obligatory. I don’t know what it is that seduces human beings in such a way. It’s arid, in the end. I’ve heard Bach especially mangled, as though he has no emotional content, as though his harmonies aren’t the most weird things. And it’s all just swept through. It’s no good at all.They don't listen to the music.

“That’s another wretched business: the metronome marks. The academic freaks treat them as holy numbers. That was brought home to me by Stravinsky. We did Oedipus Rex when I was a young man, at Sadler’s Wells, and he came to a performance. He said to me, “Why did you go so slowly in Jocasta’s aria?” and I said, “Mr Stravinsky, I was just trying to do the metronome mark”. He responded: “ My dear boy, the metronome mark is only a beginning!” A lot of great music doesn’t have any metronome marks, so people are afraid of playing it – they’ll have to sit and puzzle over what they think it should sound like. I don’t find any problem with that. If you listen to the music it will tell you how it wants to go. But if you impose on it from the beginning, the poor thing’s in a straitjacket – you’re not discovering anything about it, you’re just saying ‘do that’. That’s daft – because music is one of the few things left where we have any freedom.”

How, then, can we ensure a strong future for classical music? “There are some relatively simple things – for instance, making sure every child is musically literate,” says Davis, “as the Hungarians used to. It’s a fantastic thing – and it could be done, if anybody had any imagination . These dull, dismal politicians who are encased in Plaster of Paris - they don’t listen to anybody, they don’t really entertain new ideas. They just juggle the old ones. And the famous Lady Thatcher took away money from schools for employing peripatetic music teachers because she didn’t think music was very useful. She was just a materialist, and that’s what they all are. But the LSO do what they can, and so do the other London orchestras, taking their instruments round to the schools, trying to get the kids interested. It’s a lovely job.” 

What does he think of El Sistema, the now fabled music education system from Venezuela that has transformed many deprived children’s lives with instrumental lessons? “It’s nothing new,” he insists. “We’ve always said that the way to keep difficult youngsters out of mischief is to give them enough to do. And music is one of the most wonderful ways of doing that.”

“The other thing that irritates me is ‘elitism’ accusations against classical music. Most of those wonderful composers came out of nowhere. Dvorak was a butcher as well as a viola player – they go very well together, don’t they?” (Viola players are, as ever, the butt of most orchestral jokes.) “Martinu was a wheelwright. Elgar and Berlioz were both largely self-taught. Mozart was the son of an indifferent court fiddler. Beethoven came from a drunken family. Look at them. None of them were from the aristocracy – except Gesualdo. And he got into trouble for running through his wife and her lover with a sword.”

 “I think the most important thing is that people just get back to playing musical instruments. On the great days of the calendar my family turns up and we play chamber music. That’s great.” He has five children: two are professional musicians and all of them play instruments. “Of course the best pieces of chamber music are extremely difficult, so we’re still struggling with them. But that’s where freedom really begins. Take a violin soloist like Nikolai Znaider – he can play the violin and he doesn’t have to worry about technique, so he can think about the music. The same with orchestras: when they’re very good, they’re not disturbed by technical problems. They just need an hour or two. When we started to play those Nielsen symphonies – I’ve never seen anything so difficult in all my life! The LSO’s eyes popped out when they saw it. But they sat down together and practised it.” 

You might imagine that a senior conductor who took a slow, steady path towards the top of his profession might be sceptical about the speed with which young conductors today become established – but Davis applauds the new generation with enthusiasm. “I think it’s great,” he insists. Doesn’t he think they do too much, too young? “If they do, they’ll find out later,” he quips. “The one I know best is Robin Ticciati. He’s coming over to dinner and we’re going to cook spaghetti – then we’ll find out what he’s really like! It’s important to do human things, to take time away from music.” 

That is his main advice to young conductors: “Some conductors, it’s true, fly from place to place, but they don’t give them time to think about anything and I don’t think that develops a person very much. It’s much better to take three weeks off, get a pile of books and read them. Things used to be like that – it wasn’t any better, but it was a little livelier.” There’s no need for conductors to be in such a hurry in career terms: “Fill your mind as much as you possibly can with anything else. Where are you going to get new ideas from if you don’t read? Music doesn’t feed itself.”