Although many conductors keep going in their later years, they generally prefer the life of a freelance celebrity. Colin Davis is one of the minority who stayed on in a permanent position, serving as principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra almost until his 80th birthday cake was going into the oven.
He is now president, having spent almost 50 years working with the orchestra. Through that time we have been able to follow his journey from Davis the young firebrand, trying to tame a famously obstreperous group of players, to Davis the majestic interpreter of the great classics.
This gala concert on Wednesday was the centrepiece of the LSO’s “Sir Colin Davis at 80” series, which started last week. Grand and stirring Beethoven then was followed here by similarly grand and stirring Elgar, though not, regrettably, to such fine effect. The soloist was Gidon Kremer, celebrating his 60th birthday – if they shared a cake for their candles at the gala dinner afterwards, it must have been a big one – and making what must be for him a rare foray into Elgar’s Violin Concerto.
The result was an uneasy alliance. Kremer brought intently focused playing to the solo part, but sounded on edge, as if he was alone on a strange path, defensively preparing himself for what might be round the next corner. Davis’s outgoing and rather hearty accompaniment belonged to a different performance altogether, Elgar the imperialist ablaze with pompous brass. Neither found his way to the heart of the concerto, where a nervy melancholy awaits to reveal the truth of Elgar’s private world.
The performance of Mozart’s Requiem after the interval was also on a grand scale, but more convincingly so. I grew up on Davis’s early recording of this work and, though he has slowed down since then, the emotional scale of his conducting has expanded to fill the extra space. The London Symphony Chorus had been rehearsed in detail, down to some unnecessarily explosive consonants. A solo quartet of diverse voices, led by Marie Arnet’s tremulous soprano, blended better than one might have expected, with Anna Stéphany a very appealing mezzo, Andrew Kennedy somewhat petulant as the tenor, and Darren Jeffery providing a solid bass line.