Sir Colin Davis’s ‘Berlioz Odyssey’

‘First rate’ would be an understatement when it comes to describing Sir Colin Davis’s various performances of major works by Hector Berlioz, and no matter what period in Davis’s career you’re taking about. But the ultimate accolade surely has to go to the concert performances he gave with the LSO from early in the new Century, with first-rate recordings produced by the late James Mallinson now collected in ‘Berlioz Odyssey’ on LSO Live LSO0827 (6 SACDs + 10 CDs). Pride of pace must go to the operas The Trojans(with Ben Heppner and Michelle de Young), Béatrice et Bénédict, and Benvenuto Cellini, while L’Enfance du Christ, the Requiem and Te Deum benefit from the leadership of a conductor who appreciated the difference between intimacy, scale and bombast. In the case of The Trojans the older Davis faces significant competition from his younger self with Jon Vickers, Josephine Veasey and the Royal Opera House forces (Philips), not to mention, on CD, Jon Nelson’s Award-winning version with Joyce DiDonato (Erato, now in their big Berlioz ‘complete works’ box), another stunner, Charles Dutoit (an absolutely complete recording) and historic performances under Sir Thomas Beecham (Malibran) and Rafael Kubelik (Testament). But Davis at The Barbican packs a fair wallop, while his trademark ability in Berlioz, so crucial, to balance Classicism with Romanticism is everywhere in evidence. La Damnation de Faust is also excellent and as to Roméo et Juliette I fondly recall hearing the original broadcast – or at least a Davis broadcast of the work from around this period – and trying to guess who was at the helm … Munch, maybe, or Monteux or indeed, Davis himself? I’d heard him conduct the work live at the South Bank many years earlier, also with the LSO, but with nothing like the levels of intensity achieved in this Barbican performance. As to the rest, Harold in Italy with violist Tabea Zimmermann is more dynamic and keenly shaped than Davis’s Philharmonia version with Menuhin and the one mild disappointment, the Symphonie fantastique which although thoughtfully moulded and often excitingly played is just a little wanting in spontaneity. I note that most performances originate from recordings made over more than one day, which begs the question how ‘live’ is live? Still, anyone wanting a trusted guide to Berlioz could hardly do better than Sir Colin Davis and for that reason alone this ‘Berlioz Odyssey’ is like manna from Heaven.

Perhaps readers would care to offer critical comments on Davis’s Berlioz in relation to other interpretations on CD, either new, rather less than new or vintage? I’d be delighted to hear from you.

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2 thoughts on “Sir Colin Davis’s ‘Berlioz Odyssey’

  1. Humphrey Burton

    Dear Rob

    I literally grew up with Colin Davis. He coached me as a piano duettist when I was a Cambridge undergraduate. I first sang in the Chelsea Opera Group chorus and later played percussion alongside David Cairns (he was cymbals, I was bass drum)

    Colin’s early Berlioz was already splendid. We televised L’Enfance du Christ from Ely Cathedral in the mid 1960s and the Te Deum from St Paul’s a few years on.

    Later on I sang bass solo in L’Enfance when David Cairns conducted it with his own orchestra in Putney

    Hope you are in good health

    All best Humphrey

    PS I married Colin’s sister Gretel in 1957. Alas the marriage did not prosper. But Colin’s Berlioz remained a beacon >

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  2. Wow Humphrey! You have quite a Berlioz pedigree there but I think your personal performance history with Davis puts you in a unique position. Do you know Brian Godfrey? I think he was also involved with the Chelsea Opera Group, of which he always speaks fondly. My own experience of Davis in Berlioz goes back to the RFH in the 1960s …. but on disc my first Fantastiques were under Munch and Paray, less dreamers than dynamos, obsessively stalking the idee fixe rather than attempting to seduce her. They remain obstinate benchmarks for me though Davis had that unique ability to balance the Classical and Romantic aspects of Berlioz’s muse. I didn’t know him anywhere near as well as you did but on the couple of occasions I interviewed him he was a delight, albeit rather too quietly spoken for my little Sony recorder! I’m fine, loving my six-months-old granddaughter. I hope you are thriving and thank you so much for contributing to this blog. Warmest wishes. Rob.

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