Alexander Gibson studied the piano at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and music at the University of Glasgow. Having served in the army with the Royal Signals Corps between 1944 and 1948, he went on to win a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London where he studied conducting with Richard Austin. Gibson subsequently studied with Igor Markevitch at the Salzburg Mozarteum and with Paul van Kempen at the Accademia Chigiana in Siena and took second prize in the first Besançon International Conducting Competition, held in 1951. Soon after he was engaged as a répétiteur at Sadler’s Wells Opera Company and made his professional conducting debut there in 1952 with Smetana’s The Bartered Bride. He then worked as assistant conductor with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra from 1952 to 1954, a key training ground for many British conductors of calibre, returning to Sadler’s Wells as a staff conductor in 1954. His Covent Garden debut came in 1957, conducting Puccini’s Tosca with Zinka Milanov, Franco Corelli and Gian-Giacomo Guelfi. In the same year he was appointed chief conductor of Sadler’s Wells, remaining there for two years and conducting a wide repertoire that extended to twenty-six different works.
During this period, Gibson’s career broadened to include appearances as a guest conductor with many British and foreign symphony orchestras. This work led to his next appointment, when in 1959 he became the first Scot to be engaged as the chief conductor of the Scottish National Orchestra. He held this post for twenty-five years and did much to establish an international profile for the orchestra, notably through its numerous recordings for the Classics for Pleasure and Chandos labels. At the same time he regularly included contemporary music in the orchestra’s programmes, featuring composers such as Henze and Stockhausen. In 1962 Gibson was a key figure in the creation of Scottish Opera, of which he was the first chief conductor. He led the company in the first complete performances to be given in Scotland of Berlioz’s Les Troyens, in 1969, and of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, in 1971, as well as in new works by Scottish composers such as Iain Hamilton, Thea Musgrave and Robin Orr. He made his American debut in 1970 with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and thenceforth toured extensively throughout Europe and North and South America, becoming principal guest conductor of the Houston Symphony Orchestra in 1981. He was made a CBE in 1967, a knight in 1971, and President of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music in 1991.
Gibson was a highly accomplished musician, whose idiosyncratic baton technique was allied to a firm sense of discipline; his performances were invariably well shaped and often possessed a stronger sense of emotion than his rather reserved exterior might indicate. He was an excellent conductor of opera, possessing a strong dramatic instinct. Recordings of his operatic work were largely limited to sets of excerpts from Scottish Opera productions, such Franz Lehár’s Die lustige Witwe, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier and Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera, but these achieved a very wide circulation on the budget-priced Classics for Pleasure (CfP) label. Berlioz’s dramatic cantata La mort de Cléopâtre and excerpts from Les Troyens recorded for EMI with Dame Janet Baker are also noteworthy.
The symphonic and orchestral repertoire recorded by Gibson was on the other hand extensive. One of his most outstanding recordings was also his first: a coupling of Sibelius’s Symphony No. 5 and the Karelia Suite, made with the London Symphony Orchestra and originally released by RCA in superb sound. Gibson’s complete account of the Sibelius symphonies with the Scottish National Orchestra shows great understanding, as do his numerous recordings of music by Elgar and of the symphonies of Stravinsky, all with the Scottish National Orchestra. His recordings with the Scottish National Orchestra for the CfP label include an eloquent account of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, with Alfreda Hodgson and John Mitchinson. As an accompanist Gibson made several distinguished recordings, including the complete Beethoven piano concertos with John Lill and the Scottish National Orchestra for CfP; Paganini’s Violin Concertos Nos 1 and 4 with Henryk Szeryng and the London Symphony Orchestra for Philips; the Delius Piano Concerto and Debussy Fantaisie with the French pianist Jean-Rodolphe Kars and the London Symphony Orchestra for Decca; and Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Saint-Saëns’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with Malcolm Binns and the London Philharmonic Orchestra for the World Record Club. He recorded several works by Scottish composers, including McCunn’s popular overture The Land of the Mountain and the Flood, as well as more recent works by Thea Musgrave and Iain Hamilton.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).