The reason why a conversation with Sir Colin Davis is humbling is that when he says that he has learned that a conductor should get himself out of the way, to allow the music to work its magic, he means it, and admits that there was a time when he thought the opposite. The progress towards that serenity is more than a consequence of age – it’s remarkable to think that he first stood in front of the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) in 1957 – and is now one of his most striking characteristics. He revels in the change he sees in himself.
He still has a pixie grin and flashing eyes, though an octogenarian’s frailty is evident. When we speak, looking out to spring sunshine in his north London home, he is recovering from a fall in the pit at the Royal Opera House when he reached out for a rail, one that hefirst put his hands on in the 1960s, and found that it wasn’t there. ‘They’d moved it! Lucky I didn’t break everything…’ And he beams.
Yet his diary is full, and stretches ahead. He can’t stop. ‘President… [his title with the LSO these days] is what they call you when they want to get rid of you.’ But it’s a joke. He’s started recording Carl Nielsen’s symphonies on the LSO Live label, having known almost nothing about them before (I make a crude geographical reference to his association with Sibelius as a way of expressing surprise, and get a schoolmasterly look of pity for imagining that there is any connection beyond Nordic proximity), and he speaks, softly and urgently as he always has, about challenges, projects.
What mountains are there left to climb? ‘Mountains? More like an abyss, into which I’ll tumble any day.’ I offer the obvious truth that we all do, sooner or later. He giggles. ‘True, true’, and I realise that he is not at all preoccupied with mortality. It doesn’t bother him at all. He is enjoying himself. ‘There is one mountain…’ What will it be?
‘The Missa Solemnis,’ says Davis. Not the answer I expect. It was Beethoven who first introduced him to music when he was young, a brother having brought home a recording of Symphony No. 8, and he is puzzling over a piece that seems to preoccupy him. ‘The trouble is that people don’t like it, because they don’t understand it.’ This leads to a reflection about the abandonment of Latin in church, which pains him, and also about the need to understand the order that he feels to be close to the secret power of great music. It’s a word he uses to recall his first encounter with the Eighth, and it crops up a good deal in our conversation. The obligation to understand it is tied up with the knowledge that the quest will never be complete: maybe the journey is doomed to be unfulfilled, and perhaps the acceptance of that is part of the reason for his serenity.
‘I was conducting The Magic Flute a week or two ago and it was extraordinary. It always is. I thought I was hearing it again for the first time; you never lose the feeling that it’s new.’ So there is never a fear that things will be complete, worked out once and for all. ‘Live music is vital because every performance is different; it has to be. Not like a CD, however good, where you hear the same thing again and again. If I conduct Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony tonight it will be different from last night’s. We know that. I think it’s very important to remember.’
Throughout our conversation, during which he is gentle and reflective, he suggests that what he has come to know in his ninth decade is what he has always known. All that is missing is an impetuosity of youth, the hurry that produced intense disappointment in the young conductor when he missed out on the top job at the LSO in 1965, and the feeling that the drive to succeed had to get faster and faster. Instead, though his schedule is eye-watering, it’s as if he is making a deliberate contrast with the first half of his career, revelling in the time it gives him to choose new work, rediscover old friends and pass on what he can to the young.
We talk about his work with the Gustav Mahler Orchestra and the EU Youth Orchestra and the energy he gets from conducting young players. Why? ‘They’re so good. It’s as simple as that. Wonderful players.’ What is his obligation to them? ‘To show them that you have to work hard. I take time, study, practise. When I stand up they need to know that I’m beating three beats in the bar, not three and a half.’
This leads us on to a discussion of the impenetrable mystery of the conductor’s power. He isn’t surprised that in this magazine’s ‘conductor of conductors’ survey two months ago, Carlos Kleiber emerged as the most admired by his fellow musicians. ‘He was quite extraordinary. A complex character, of course. But what he managed to do was to show the orchestra what was required. That’s really the secret – showing them what they need to do. Then they get on with it. But they need to know that you have done the work. Don’t forget that in the opera pit you can’t see very well, often can’t hear. They need to know that the chap in the front knows what he’s doing. If they do, you’re away.’
His discussion of orchestras is laced with generosity. We recall his recording of Verdi’s Falstaff for LSO Live which I watched him rehearsing in 2004. ‘They’re virtuosi, these players. That’s why they enjoyed that music so much, which they don’t often get to play. I simply have to show them what’s needed, and they will do it. I adore them.’
Sir Colin’s career has three distinct phases. The first probably came to a climax when he became chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1967, the second encompassed his tenure at Covent Garden and years in Germany in the early 1980s, and the third was his triumphant leadership of the LSO itself, with whom he made so many memorable recordings and stamped his personality on so much of the repertoire that has become associated with him – Berlioz, Strauss, Tippett, Sibelius as well as his first loves, Mozart and Beethoven.
In his rise to fame in the 1960s he had to reconcile a quite fiery temperament with the difficulty of succeeding two men who were difficult to follow. Sir Malcolm Sargent’s handover on the Last Night of the Proms in 1966 was a scene that combines, in the scratchy recording of the occasion, a high camp piece of patronising with a hint of cruelty. It was a deeply uncomfortable handover. And a few years later he had to go through it again, succeeding Sir Georg Solti at Covent Garden. How long did it take him to handle that inheritance? ‘About ten years, probably’. Another giggle. That was two-thirds of his tenure at the Royal Opera House.
He can be philosophical about it now, but it was hard at the time. He is a sensitive man, after all. When we turn to the question of how a conductor handles performances that don’t go according to plan, he’s ready to acknowledge how difficult it can still be. Does he blame himself if it doesn’t work on the night? ‘I’m an expert at that. Always have been. An expert.’ He beams.
So where does the energy come from? He returns to the idea of a journey that can never be completed (a thought that pacifies him) and the search for order. ‘I don’t agree with Stravinsky that music doesn’t mean anything. Of course it does. But understanding what it is – getting there – does involve an endless quest. The fact that it goes on, always goes on, is a wonderful thing. The mystery is unfathomable, but music is saying something that can’t be said in any other way. That is the point. When I first discovered music, I was blown away. It was as simple as that. It was like being hit by something; bitten by something.’ And then he offers a surprising thought. ‘I have always loved music and I still do. Probably more than ever. Yes, more than I used to.’ Why? ‘Because I’ve removed the ego, taken myself out of it.’ We’re getting now to the heart of the relationship with an orchestra. ‘I think when an orchestra is playing really well it’s because they know that the music comes first. I’ve learned that over the years.’ You’ve worked at it? ‘Oh yes. I think I must have been difficult years ago. Probably. I hope it’s better now. One of the reasons they accept me is that they know I’m there for the music, and not for me.’
And what, above all, must a conductor do? ‘You must show that you are enjoying yourself. That’s the first thing. The work, of course, the attention to detail. But enjoying it. When they know that, you communicate. Without it – nothing.’ He returns to the theme of balancing the commitment of a musician – all the work, the rehearsals, the study – with an ability to pull back at the right moment. ‘Power? It’s a disaster. Awful.’ Charisma? ‘Don’t know what it means. Do you?’
We’re back to the meaning that lies deep in the music and can’t be easily defined. Wagner pops up. ‘Those interminable speeches. I think that to him the words were more important than the music. He wanted to write something for every word.’ Not surprisingly, he turns for relief to Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. ‘It’s a history of human frailty, whereas the Ring is a history of criminality.’ He raises a hand to make it obvious which he thinks better demonstrates the fusion of words and music. ‘After all, if you miss the hymn at the end of the last act of Figaro you miss the whole point of the piece.’ Music, he says, doesn’t make you better by itself. But it gives you the chance, if you want to take it.
Talking through the morning, with the first hint of spring sunshine breaking into his room, it’s hard not to sense a deep contentment. There are flashes of impatience and a heavy diary, the engagements stretch far into the future – but underneath a feeling that he is comfortable on the journey, knowing that it must go on. ‘It’s wondrous when you think that as a musician you get to know these extraordinary people – Mozart, Beethoven – and you remember that there are very few of them, in the history of all the millions of people there have been. Think of it.’ He laughs. ‘Not very many at all. So they are worthy of our attention, aren’t they?’
Years ago at the Barbican, he used to have a cartoon from The New Yorker above his desk. It was a drawing of a moonscape or perhaps a Nevada desert – a desolate landscape stretching in the distance to a few bleak hills in the distance with nothing to be seen except a scrunched-up Coke can and a discarded rubber tyre. Underneath, the legend said ‘Life without Mozart’. He laughs at the memory of it, and the knowledge that he will never have to live without him. ‘I pass it on. I show them that I still enjoy it, and then they play. That’s all.’ He beams. Despite everything, a happy man.