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Sir Colin Davis: Conductor celebrated around the world for his powerful interpretations


On 4 February 1950, in the Holywell Music Room at Oxford, Colin Davis conducted Don Giovanni for the Chelsea Opera Group. He was 22. I was the Masetto and was either adequate or beyond hope, for almost all that Colin said to me at rehearsal, apropos the start of the Act I Finale, was, "You will sound really angry, won't you?'' The performance, whatever its failings, had one shining virtue: Davis's passionate commitment to the score and the combination of energy and intellect which he brought to it.

At the time he described himself as living in the "freelance wilderness", and nothing much was to change for seven years. But after the Don Giovanni people began to talk: here was a remarkable talent, but one handicapped by the fact that he was not a pianist.

This meant that one of the best ways of becoming a conductor, by serving as répétiteur in an opera house, was closed to him. But he was a good clarinettist, having won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music from Christ's Hospital. He played when and where he could, most notably for the great Fritz Busch at Glyndebourne, offstage in Don Giovanni and in the pit in Cosi fan Tutte. And after service as a bandsman in the Household Cavalry he was asked to conduct the Kalmar Orchestra, a group of students at the Royal College who wanted to get to know the orchestral repertoire. From this grew the Chelsea Opera Group – and the Oxford Don Giovanni.

Among those who heard rumours of his gifts were Bernard Robinson and William Glock. Robinson's Music Camp and Glock's summer school at Bryanston afforded chances to conduct. At Bryanston in 1951 he discovered Berlioz – "one of the most marvellous moments of my life" – and Stravinsky. But still there was no breakthrough and the middle '50s were tough. In 1949 he had married the soprano April Cantelo and she was effectively the breadwinner, an arrangement no doubt irksome to someone as self-sufficient as Davis.

The tide began to turn in 1957 when his third application for the post of assistant conductor of the BBC Scottish Orchestra was successful. He had not worked much with professionals and was not familiar with their "language" and how to get the best out of them. In Glasgow he could make his mistakes and learn his lessons in relative obscurity. He learned fast, but he was not yet confident of his own authority and could be surly and abrupt. By all accounts the musicians were patient.

The year 1959 brought him success on a scale to match his ability. Replacing Klemperer with the Philharmonia he had accompanied Clara Haskil admirably, and I suggested he should appear at the Edinburgh Festival (which I was directing) with the London Mozart Players. He gave memorably mature performances of Stravinsky's Danses Concertantes and the "Jupiter" Symphony and Peter Heyworth, in The Observer, described him as "probably the best we have produced since Sir Thomas Beecham" and it was no doubt this acclaim which persuaded Walter Legge, then running the Philharmonia, to let him loose on a concert performance of Don Giovanni, which was a triumph.

Colin Davis had "arrived" but, ever uncertain of himself, declared that he "wasn't ready to be the kind of success I was supposed to be." (He had once written to Adrian Boult to apologise for an apparent lack of responsiveness on the grounds that "I was not then ready to learn all that you were able to teach me.") It was fortuitous that in the same year he was offered a job with Sadler's Wells (now ENO), of which he became Musical Director in 1961.

At the Wells he could do more or less what he wanted and, though he was not consistently successful, there were notable productions – Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex and The Rake's Progress, Idomeneo and Fidelio among them. He raised the company's musical standards and discovered the pleasures of working as a team, with Glen Byam Shaw and Norman Tucker. "I learned how to behave myself at Sadler's Wells," he remarked, though not everyone would have agreed with him.

When he left Sadler's Wells in 1964 he became Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra – "the greatest challenge of my life and the completion of my professional education". Relations with the orchestra were initially difficult. They resented his youth and some disliked his intensity and tendency to philosophise about the music. But he established his authority and the relationship began to pay dividends. Overseas tours followed and there were fine recordings including the Mozart Requiem, Haydn's The Seasons, Idomeneo and Figaro, and a string of piano concertos with Stephen Bishop (now Kovacevich), with whom he shared a temperament both serious-minded and mischievous.

He was also a guest with the Boston Symphony and the New York Philharmonic in 1968; a year later he had successes with Peter Grimes and Wozzeck at the Met. He was appearing regularly at the Royal Opera House, giving The Trojans (1969), Fidelio, Wozzeck and Tippett's The Midsummer Marriage. Tippett found him "the ideal interpreter" and was to dedicate The Ice Break (1977) to him. The two had a similar cast of mind, eccentrically philosophic with a vein of quirky, juvenile humour.

When Georg Solti left Covent Garden in 1971 Davis was the obvious successor and reigned there as Music Director for 15 years. In Götz Friedrich he found a congenial, if controversial, collaborator and their Ring cycle, concluded in 1976, was so successful that Davis was invited to open the 1977 Bayreuth Festival, with Tannhäuser, the first British conductor to appear there.

The early 1980s were difficult for the Royal Opera House. Hand-to-mouth subsidy caused cancellations, and there were unexpected disappointments. Davis attracted some of the censure and there were signs that his health might be suffering. In November 1984 he wrote that "internally I am often more depressed than is comfortable." But his second marriage, in 1964, to Ashraf Naimi – "Shamsi" – brought him the most devoted, steady support. A letter about Tippett's Triple Concerto, premiered in 1980, ended, "Shamsi is certainly a gift – in many ways. In any case she's claiming all the honours – for having so many children!"

There were five and they gave him intense happiness. I remember visiting him after the birth of the latest one and his pride when he brought to show me, with loving hands, the tiny, naked person. Years later he was to learn the viola in order to be able to play chamber music with them. He brought them up to love music, to read, enjoy the countryside and to respect animals (there were pet snakes, freely handled, in the household), above all to be "useful". It concerned him deeply that they would grow up in a world apparently in moral and ethical decline.

During his tenure at Covent Garden Davis had attracted a number of appointments, among them Principal Guest with the Boston Symphony (1972-84). He later had a satisfying relationship with the Concertgebouw. He derived special pleasure from the Orchestra of Bavarian Radio, of which he was Principal Conductor from 1983 to 1992 and from the Dresden Staatskapelle, of which he became Honorary Conductor in 1990.

Since 1975 he had been Principal Guest with the London Symphony Orchestra and in 1995 became the more than worthy successor to Michael Tilson Thomas as Chief Conductor. The appointment was astute: Davis had gravitas; his range was enormous; he was relatively young; and seemed to be getting better and better.

His relationship with the LSO was richly productive. In 1995 he led the LSO Tippett Festival, then inaugurated his tenure with Berlioz's Romeo et Juliette, adding La Damnation de Faust, Harold en Italie and the Symphonie Fantastique in overpowering performances for the Bicentenary in 2003. In 2007 he was succeeded by Valeri Gergiev but retained the Laureateship of the Orchestra.

In 2010 hiss wife, Shamsi, died of cancer. He was distraught, and was diagnosed with a minor heart condition. Then came a fall in the pit at Covent Garden, where he was conducting Die Zauberflöte. At 83, there was concern about his health. But he was by no means on his last legs. When he left Covent Garden, in 1986, he wrote to me, "I hope you enjoy Fidelio – I am privately delighted it has caused such a stir... Better to go out as I came in: unreliable and with an open mind."

This was typical. He was wryly aware of his anarchic streak. No respecter of persons, he detested hypocrisy and pomposity. He was unconventional to the point of childishness, once putting out his tongue when booed at Covent Garden. But these very characteristics were part and parcel of his "open mind." They ensured that he never sank into a routine and that what he did was always fresh. Moreover, he fed his imagination on the visual arts and on literature: William Blake's drawings and Kazantzakis's Odyssey were particular favourites.

He was never less than masterly in Mozart, Beethoven, Berlioz, Sibelius, Tippett, Haydn, Brahms, Wagner and Stravinsky. Late in his career he produced an unforgettably powerful Walton First Symphony and a fine cycle of the Nielsen symphonies. And he was generous towards students, often conducting at the Royal Academy and the Guildhall School, achieving results better than seemed possible.

To everything he did he brought immense – some said too much – energy. He once referred to "the importance of retaining one's sexual capacity." And there was without doubt an erotic element in the way he could, when appropriate, caress a phrase or build a climax. But the physicality of his music-making was counter-balanced by an intellectual rigour. This sometimes resulted in ponderous tempi, but it gave his interpretations a feeling of powerful control and a fine sense of the architecture of the music.

He never lost his respect for great music, particularly the Missa Solemnis (including a magisterial performance at the 2011 Proms), "the last Gothic vision – equal to Chartres or whatever your favourite building – and it embraces everything. I just wish that afterwards I didn't feel such a pretentious worm." Nor did he lose a proper sense of inadequacy. He even retained some bad habits from his youth – "singing along" and mouthing "pom-pom-pom". But they were tiny human flaws and did not prevent him from being showered with prizes and honours.

Colin Davis was unaffected by success and was so little interested in what was written about him – or in power for its own sake – that he would have no newspaper or periodical in his house. He guarded the privacy of his family life and to be admitted to it, even a little, was a privilege matched only by the pleasure of observing, over more than 60 years, the development of a towering musical personality. As time went by his progress on to the platform became more stately, his bow more dignified and, towards the audience, deferential. But he retained a positively childlike wonder at the unfathomable potency of great music.

Colin Rex Davis, conductor: born Weybridge, Surrey 25 September 1927; CBE 1965, CH 2001, Kt 1980; married 1949 April Cantelo (divorced 1964; one son, one daughter), 1964 Ashraf Naini (died 2010; three sons, two daughters); died 14 April 2013.