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Roger Hecht
American Record Guide, March 2011

Davis scores again. The orchestra plays with the enthusiasm of discovery and without a single moment of uncertainty or poor judgement.

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

Ronald E. Grames
Fanfare, March 2011

Though Colin Davis has been an advocate for English music throughout his long and honor-filled career, he has until recently been better known on disc as a champion of Berlioz and Sibelius. In 2002, LSO Live released concert recordings of the two Elgar symphonies and the Payne elaboration of the Third, to mixed reviews in Fanfare (26:1 and 26:2). Davis has also recorded a somewhat diffident Violin Concerto with Hilary Hahn on DG, and an Enigma Variations, also for LSO Live, that Peter Rabinowitz found praiseworthy, though hardly a revelation. With the London Symphony, Davis was working with an orchestra that could play Elgar in its sleep, so I didn’t have high expectations for this recording with the Bavarian Radio Orchestra, in the first year of his directorship. I am pleasantly surprised. While this is not going to be anyone’s recording of choice in a crowded field, it is a distinctive view of the work, suffering only slightly from the stiffness of unfamiliarity. The energetic sections have an appealing vigor, lines are always kept clean and well balanced, and Davis’s hallmark precision is generally an asset. Only in the more nostalgic sections toward the end do things get sluggish or literal. The Nimrod variation, for instance, starts out beautifully hushed, but does not fully realize the throat-catching surge of the climax. The BGN variation is taken too slowly, undermining the essential wistfulness of the cellist’s portrait. The tempo of the Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage quote in the Romanza is even more drawn-out, suggesting that Elgar was seeing Lady Mary Lygon off on the Titanic. Fortunately, Davis brings things back with a vigorous EDU variation that leaves one with an overall positive impression.

It was, in any case, for the Vaughan Williams that I chose to review this release. Davis has never commercially recorded a Vaughan Williams symphony, though a powerful concert performance of the Fourth was released by the Boston Symphony in its Centennial box. His The Lark Ascending, on the Hahn disc, is the only piece by this composer that Davis has conducted for the microphones, and that is different meat altogether. The Sixth, like the Fourth, is Vaughan Williams in militant mode, and this live recording from 1987 is the most harrowing performance of the work I know. As with the Elgar, there have been more characteristically British recordings—Boult effectively created the hallmark unsettled jauntiness of English performances—but the angry muscularity and concentrated malice that Davis draws from his Munich forces is an arresting alternative. Even that romantic transformation of the first movement’s second subject—noble and warm-hearted in most recordings—does nothing to ease the tension. Vaughan Williams denied that he intended any commentary on postwar angst, but here is the embodiment of the post-apocalyptic view of this work. The central section of the Moderato suggests hopelessness in the face of the violence that surrounds it, and the final Epilogue moderato is more icily devastating than any other performance on disc; not quite pianissimo until near the end, but perfectly impassive. Only a few disappointments: The English horn solo at the end of the second movement is lumpish, and the saxophone solo in the brutal Scherzo misses the irony of the jazzy interruptions; unfortunate, but not major detractions.

The sound is excellent; rich and detailed with a wide dynamic range. With the exceptions noted, the orchestral execution is exemplary. Though of only passing interest for the Elgar, this disc is an essential acquisition for serious collectors of RVW recordings, and presents a perfect argument against those who still maintain a “cowpat school” image of this intensely expressive 20th-century composer.

William Hedley
MusicWeb International, January 2011

Sir Colin Davis’s live recordings of Elgar’s symphonies were amongst the earliest releases on the London Symphony Orchestra’s own label. I reviewed them here in 2003. Others had been almost wildly enthusiastic, so I was surprised that all three performances struck me as self-indulgent and lacking in drive. I was also distracted by conductor’s vocalising. Here he is, twenty years earlier, with the German orchestra of which he was Chief Conductor from 1983 until 1993.

Davis plays the “Enigma” theme very straight, the pulse hardly wavering. This is refreshing and effective, and the following variation, dedicated to the composer’s wife, follows, as it should, at exactly the same tempo. This variation, beautifully paced and played here, provokes the only really audible groan from the conductor. Mr. Steuart-Powell (Variation II) is a bit more boisterous than usual, but none the worse for that, and Davis’s reading of “W.M.B.” (Variation IV) is superbly incisive. Matthew Arnold’s son (Variation V) is significantly slower than the metronome mark, the wandering, unison string theme sounding very romantic indeed, and not a little melancholy. The flowing “Ysobel” (Variation VI) features very reedy, un-English sounding bassoons. It is again slower than marked, but this doesn’t stop it being one of the loveliest readings I have heard, sincere and tender. Davis takes a slight liberty with the long, held G that leads into “Nimrod”, but it’s so effective one forgives him, and the variation itself is superbly done. Has there ever been a more moving musical tribute that this? A longer silence would have been welcome before “Dorabella” (Variation X), and I’ve heard this done more affectionately, though George Sinclair’s dog Dan is vividly brought to life in the following variation. Elgar’s cellist friend is in danger of sounding effete in Variation XII (B.G.N.) in what seems to me the only damagingly slow tempo in the whole performance. The slow passages of (***) (Variation XIII) are also taken substantially more slowly than the score demands, for example, but the music can stand it, and the remarkable recreation of the sound of a steamer’s engines is most vividly brought out in this performance. I find the final variation, the composer himself, to be the least successful. The brass playing lacks the last degree of refinement, and the reading doesn’t quite swagger as it should. Overall, though, this is a very fine performance indeed, and one is happy to be reminded of what a masterpiece the work is.

Although Sir Colin has conducted Elgar’s music throughout his career, he has neglected that of Vaughan Williams. Indeed, the only other recorded Davis-conducted Vaughan Williams work I have heard is The Lark Ascending, played by Hilary Hahn, and all but ruined by the conductor’s over-expressive accompaniment. Here, in live performances from Munich, he tackles Vaughan Williams’ most pessimistic symphony.

The first movement begins very well, very broad and powerful. The rushing, syncopated semiquavers are brilliantly done and for a while everything is very convincing. But compared to the conductor’s finest rivals, there is a certain lack of menace. The power is there, and there is no lack of surface brilliance, but it’s not threatening enough. In the finest performances, when the big tune arrives near the end of the movement, we are not fooled: we know, from the outset, that this is not what it seems. In the present performance it sounds almost—but not quite—like a waltz, and the transformation of this tune, over only a couple of bars, into the music of the symphony’s opening, does not horrify as it should. Andrew Davis, originally on Telarc, gives the finest performance of this symphony I have ever heard, and he contrives to make this big tune an oasis of hope, broad and noble, and the only one in the work, so that its transformation is horrifying, a door slammed in the face, never to be reopened. Andrew Davis is more successful in the second movement too, where he keeps a strict metrical approach to the horrible, repeated rhythmic figure. Sir Colin is freer with this, and some of the horror is dissipated. He is, however, absolutely superb in the central section, with all those divided strings, the concentration and intensity of the playing really quite remarkable. He and the Bavarian players are very fine in the scherzo too, though the saxophone soloist simply doesn’t manage the same sick, sleazy swing as his London counterpart. He begins too loudly, too—it is marked piano in the score—and is balanced rather too far forward. The final movement is superb, as lacking in human warmth, even human presence, as any of the finest performances. Inevitably a few coughs are heard from the audience, but they do not break the atmosphere. How many in the audience were familiar with the work and what did they make of it.

This disc is part of a series dedicated to celebrating the sixtieth anniversary of the existence of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. The sound is very fine in both works, though there are moments, in the Vaughan Williams in particular, where the strings seem underpowered compared to the rest of the ensemble. The booklet contains an essay by Bernhard Neuhoff, in three languages, that deals with the conductor and, briefly, the two works on the disc. Sir Colin Davis was obviously highly appreciated in Munich, and as one of the finest living conductors, rightly so. All the same, I wonder how many music lovers would be completely in agreement with this opening statement from the booklet essay: “The great musicians can be roughly divided into two groups: on the one hand, we have the exaggeration artists (to borrow a phrase from Thomas Bernhard), on the other the unpretentious. Sir Colin Davis doubtless belongs to the latter group. With his elegant baton technique, he seldom sets exclamation marks, his ideal is naturalness.”

David Hurwitz, January 2011

Colin Davis delivers an excellent performance of Vaughan Williams’ Sixth Symphony, aptly ferocious in the first movement, threatening in the second, with a raucous scherzo and a hypnotic finale. It’s a symphony he’s always conducted well, and the Bavarian Radio players dig into the music with plenty of passion and gripping sense of discovery. Unfortunately, the symphony comes shackled to a wholly unnecessary version of the Enigma Variations.

It’s not a bad performance by any means; indeed, after the somewhat mannered opening theme it’s mostly quite good. Davis is particularly exciting in the quicker bits: W.M.B., Troyte, G.R.S., and the finale. He also captures the scary interlude in Romanza very dramatically. Nimrod, though, is a bit of a letdown, its tension oddly distributed and the string ensemble slack. Had this one variation been better, I could recommend this disc with almost no reservations. But an Enigma without a great Nimrod just doesn’t cut it. As it is, if you’re in the market for a fine RVW Sixth, you’d do well to sample this one.

Edward Greenfield
Gramophone, January 2011

Sir Colin makes a rare foray into the music of Vaughan Williams

While Sir Colin Davis has made a speciality of conducting British music, it is surprising that he has recorded so little Vaughan Williams. Here, happily, is a fizzing exception, a live recording made in 1987 for Bavarian Radio, of the Sixth Symphony, with all its wide variety of expression, from the violent opening to the sustained pianissimo of the extraordinarily original finale

What is especially remarkable is how the players take to this music so enthusiastically. Their control of RVW’s jazzily syncopated writing has just the right degree of freedom and the pianissimo finale is superbly sustained, with no suspicion of an unmarked crescendo over its 10-minute span. The relaxation at the end of the first movement, when the composer allows himself a warm tune in place of the original jaunty second subject, is beautifully caught, and the violence of the slow movement gives way naturally to the humour of the third movement with its distinctive use of saxophone.

Elgar’s Enigma Variations are just as beautifully sustained, this time in the slightly more open acoustic of the Herkulessaal in Munich, a most sympathetic venue. Sir Colin’s interpretation is marked by steady speeds and high contrasts. So the first variation, representing the composer’s wife, at its steady tempo opens up into a gloriously warm climax, and “Troyte” is marked by big dramatic brass and timpani, while the great emotional thrust of “Nimrod”, still at a steady tempo, is glorious, with the Bavarian strings at their most beautiful. The finale then emerges in mounting excitement, and here more than anywhere one values the fact that this was a live recording. The Elgar was recorded in 1983 but, like the Vaughan Williams, it benefits from wonderfully clear, well-balanced sound. An outstanding and very welcome disc.

Mike D. Brownell, December 2010

Colin Davis, a self-proclaimed unpretentious conductor, took the helm of Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundunks in 1983, succeeding Rafael Kubelik and the tragically deceased Kirill Kondrashin. This BR Klassik album features a recording of Elgar’s Enigma Variations made in the same year Davis took over the orchestra, demonstrating from the get-go the conductor’s broadening of the orchestra’s repertoire to include English composers and others. Even though Davis had only just begun working with the orchestra, his insistence on precision and the eventual transformation that it brought to the orchestra can already be heard. Davis draws out a remarkable warmth from the strings and a simple clarity from the winds. He allows the music to speak for itself rather than imposing unnecessary emotional emphasis. The result is a thoroughly moving, passionate reading of Enigma. Jump ahead four years to 1987 and Davis’ work with the orchestra is truly apparent in their recording of the Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 6. The sometimes aggressive symphony is executed with the utmost precision, brilliant dynamic contrasts, and unfettered control of tempo. As either an introduction to these two great English works or to Davis’ early work with Rundfunks, this album is an exceptional choice.

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