Davies grew up in Birmingham, where she received her early musical training from Charles Edwin Flavell who had studied in Frankfurt with Aloys Schmitt (1788–1866). A further year of study in Leipzig, where her teachers included Carl Reinecke, was the precursor to her two years of study with Schumann’s widow, Clara. It was during this time that she learnt the fundamentals of the interpretation and performance of Schumann’s works in the style and tradition of the composer, and also became well acquainted with Brahms. At her London debut Davies played Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 Op. 58 at Crystal Palace, and again played it at the Leipzig Gewandhaus in 1888; on the same programme Tchaikovsky conducted the first performance of his Symphony No. 4 in F minor Op. 36. During the season following her London debut Davies played in six of the ‘Popular Concerts’ (mainly given on Mondays at St James’s Hall from 1859 to 1904) with violinist Joseph Joachim and cellist Alfredo Piatti; Joachim subsequently assisted her in her Berlin debut at the Singakademie.
Davies had a successful performing career, giving first performances in London of Brahms’s Klavierstücke Opp. 116 and 117, and having the honour of presenting the London premières of his Clarinet Sonatas Op. 120 and the Clarinet Trio Op. 114 with their dedicatee, Richard Mühlfeld. She also gave the English première of Brahms’s Violin Sonata in D minor Op.108 and often partnered Joseph Joachim in the Brahms violin sonatas, also collaborating with the Joachim and Rosé Quartets. Davies played in Rome in 1890, at the Beethoven House Festival in 1893 (contributing his Piano Sonata Op.110), and the Donizetti Centenary Festival in 1897. Ten years later she made extensive tours of Germany with singer Gervase Elwes and later played chamber music with the Bohemian Quartet, enjoying the experience of travelling with them to Prague for concerts. Davies also gave chamber concerts with Pablo Casals in the years preceding World War I, and was invited by him in 1923 to play Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 Op. 58 and Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2 Op. 83 in Barcelona with an orchestra he had founded. Around this time Davies became the first pianist to give a recital in Westminster Abbey, giving further concerts at York, Winchester and other cathedrals.
Davies, of course, had a reputation as predominantly a performer of the works of Schumann and, to a lesser extent, Brahms; but she did not however limit her repertoire to these two composers. She did give recitals entirely of Schumann or Brahms, but also recitals of Schubert and Schumann, or Bach and Schumann. In 1893 she had played Chopin’s Piano Concerto in F minor Op. 21 in London, and George Bernard Shaw wrote of it as ‘…the most successful feat of interpretation and execution I have ever heard her achieve’. She was also known as a performer of music by early English composers, and championed modern ones from Spain, Czechoslovakia and England, being the dedicatee of Elgar’s Concert Allegro for piano. At a 1923 Wigmore Hall recital she played a Handel fugue, six pieces of Byrd, Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 101, six Spanish dances by Granados, and ended with Schumann’s Études Symphoniques Op. 13. Other composers featuring in her programmes included Dohnányi, Haydn, Chopin, Scriabin and Mendelssohn.
On 8 June 1928 Davies gave a recital in London of Schubert and Schumann, and a week later made her first recordings for Columbia. With the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Ernest Ansermet she recorded Schumann’s Piano Concerto Op. 54. In February 1929 she returned to record Schumann’s Kinderszenen Op. 15 and in December 1930 the same composer’s Davidsbündlertänze Op. 6. That was the extent of Davies’s published recording career; she died four years later. However, at the same time she also recorded Schumann’s Fantasiestücke Op. 12, Romanze in F sharp Op. 28 No. 2, and Study in canon form Op. 56 No. 5; but to date, none of these recordings have been published, and they may no longer survive.
The performance of Schumann’s Piano Concerto is so fresh and spontaneous that it is a surprise to learn that Davies was in her late sixties when she recorded it. If one reads the reminiscences of any of Clara Schumann’s pupils the same ideas of interpretation abound, and it is in this recording that they are preserved and demonstrated. As Davies remembered, Clara Schumann had said, ‘Schumann is nothing if he is not rhythmic. He is a poet, full of sentiment and fantasy, but he is never sentimental; you must never make his music sound sentimental.’ The performance style of this concerto has changed over the years, distorting the work into an overblown romantic warhorse, but listening to the simplicity and purity of Davies, one cannot help but imagine that this must be close to the way the work would have sounded in Schumann’s time.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).
Role: Classical Artist