Philharmonic a responsive host to Sir Colin Davis

Sir Colin Davis has been an infrequent visitor to American shores this past decade. In the '70s, he had been principal guest conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a partnership from which Philips Records captured a remarkable series of performances for posterity. Sir Colin also spent 15 years at the helm of the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, and is now music director of the Bavarian Radio Orchestra. He was visiting this city recently to open the New York Philharmonic season (a concert seen live on the Public Broadcasting Service) and to lead the first two subscription programs of the year. He hadn't conducted the orchestra since '68.

When Davis first came to the United States, he was known particularly for his Berlioz - and indeed, the recorded cycle of that unique composer's works is full of treasures.

Ironically, he was denied Berlioz during his Boston years, but those years did find the completion of a remarkable Sibelius symphony cycle (available on Philips). I also remember a stunning reading of Vaughan Williams's Fourth Symphony.

In New York, Davis's first performance (as seen on PBS) was a gala collaboration with Murray Perahia in Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto. It was a peculiar match-up - Mr. Perahia all curious about the intricacies and delicacies of the piano line, Davis very taken with the broad, propulsively expansive possibilities of the orchestral writing. It made for a fascinating series of overlappings and intersectings without ever really fusing as a sound emotional or interpretive entity.

On the same program, Davis offered a Brahms Second Symphony, which showed this work to be the sequel to the massive First, rather than a lyrical, meditative step aside from it. It was at all times a gripping reading that sustained its expansive, weighty thrust from beginning to end.

The same weighty approach was heard in the Sibelius Fifth Symphony. This piece, considered quite daring in its day, begins with overtones of the deeply pessimistic Fourth.

But by the finale, a sunnier sort of northern mood cuts through, and the piece ends with a series of exultant chords, each separated by long silences. To rush those silences is to ruin the unique impact of those chords, and Davis understands this perfectly.

In fact, he understands this work in all its facets.

Vaughan Williams's Sixth Symphony (in E minor) is a curious synthesis of things ranging from jazz to academic formalism. It is rich in melodic inspiration, with a pervasive sense of theatricality, particularly the hushed final 11 minutes. Davis's reading stressed the long line, toned down the jazz, and gave it a dark potency that prepared the listener for the odd finale, which the composer said was inspired by Shakespeare's ``The Tempest,'' though critics in 1947 heard nuclear winter in its strains.

Throughout all these concerts, the New York Philharmonic musicians played with an attention to nuance and blend that happens only when the conductor on the podium interests them.

Clearly, they were spellbound by Davis, giving him just about everything he wanted, with the arguable exception of the rather raucous brass.

The prospect of hearing Berlioz's ``The Damnation of Faust'' promised the most - and proved an example of Davis at his finest in music that challenges him to particular heights of accomplishments. Berlioz's vast ``dramatic legend'' is a series of musical ``panels'' that, taken together, echo the drama of the Goethe on which it is based. Berlioz does not so much set words as create moods, vistas, and atmospheres that resonate within the listeners' beings.

The conductor must be in perfect control of all elements of the score, must know what each detail means and what emotion it is meant to tap, and put it forward without cheap theatrics or hysterical propulsiveness.

This is exactly what Davis has always done best, and in ``Damnation,'' it proved thrilling.

It was a performance similar in scope to the Philips recording, now issued on two stunning CDs (Philips 416 395-2), except that Davis in the theater is invariably more interesting and theatrical than Davis in the recording studio.

At the Philharmonic, the management chose to omit the text - at best an ill-advised economy, particularly for a work that relies so closely on textual meaning.

Davis's soloists were curiously ill suited to their tasks. Tenor Thomas Moser made a musical if somewhat strenuous and bland Faust, and Paul Plishka, a woolly, miscast M'ephistoph'el`es. Anne Sofie von Otter's lightweight mezzo proved insufficiently expressive for Marguerite. The New York Choral Artists made the rich, gleeful noise of twice its number.

Davis's recording remains the best ``Damnation,'' and it has been gloriously revitalized on CD. Nicolai Gedda was not in superb voice for the sessions, but the framework of the interpretation and the artistic integrity were quite sterling.

Jules Bastin communicated all the sly sarcasms of M'ephistoph'el`es deftly. Josephine Veasey was the sole, but major, liability, beginning well enough, but devolving into singing that was at once sour and erratic of pitch.

Miss Veasey was also a problem on Davis's recording of ``Les Troyens'' - Berlioz's extraordinary epic opera. But it is Davis at his triumphant best, and so remarkable is his reading that all flaws seem to melt into thin air. Thus, Veasey's braying, cloying Didon and Berit Lindholm's scratchy, unpleasantly sung Cassandre seemed lost in the sweep.

Happily, Jon Vickers, as En'ee, proved ideally heroic - a huge vocal personality captured, flaws and all, in full cry.

In an LP set, I found this a startling and unforgettable experience. To have it now on four superbly executed CDs (Philips 416 432-2) is cause for true celebration.

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