A few words of reflection on the extraordinary career of one of our most prized musical exports, a man who in his own words graduated from something of a firebrand into a wise man so mellow and softly spoken that merely the sound of his voice was strangely therapeutic. I remember in one of my first interviews with the great man my trendy voice-activated micro-cassette machine kept shutting off because it was convinced he had stopped talking. He suggested that it had a low boredom threshold.
My first memories of him were dramatic ones on disc: a scorching Stravinsky Oedipus Rex from the old Sadlers Wells source and a Beethoven 7 with the Royal Philharmonic on mid-price EMI which drew astonished plaudits from the critics and laid to rest the notion at that time that budget priced discs were rarely if ever superior to their full-priced equivalents. This Beethoven 7 was red in tooth and claw and when, in a comparatively recent live interview with Sir Colin at the Royal Opera House, I reminded him of it he remarked that in those days he was probably not as well behaved as he might have been in getting things the way that he wanted him. His early encounters with the London Symphony Orchestra – who were eventually to embrace his glorious autumn of music making – were turbulent to say the least. “A pretty ferocious bunch of pirates” was how he described them noting the absence of women bar one who smoked a pipe! Very Sir Colin – vaguely sexist but charming with it.
That interview was extraordinarily satisfying – a real musical debate in which Sir Colin’s long held passions like Mozart, Berlioz, and Sibelius were graciously shared. He had a way of airing his enthusiasms by seeking to elicit a response from his audience. Of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro he said “Isn’t this the greatest opera ever written? It surely is, isn’t it?” Of Sibelius’ 6th Symphony he said (and I remember the words well) “Isn’t the opening of this symphony the most magical polyphony we have?” When talking about Sibelius’ “unfathomable” bass lines he was gently complimentary about my adding that they were sunk too deep to fathom. He was even only mildly reproving when I suggested that his beloved Berlioz was not such a good librettist!
Sir Colin’s own conducting was solid and rigorous with a sound that seemed to come up through the bass lines, through one’s feet and body. It was unashamedly well-fed and yet still formidably athletic. He eschewed the leaner and hungrier “period” approach to the mainstream classics – he favoured a fleshier sound and more deliberate tempi and could be stubbornly old-fashioned in that regard. I remember him speaking of “a great public racket” when referring to Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. His Beethoven was positively hewn from the rock-face of the 18th century.
And yet, as set in the old ways as he was (one would never get him started on one-voice-to-a-part Bach), he was remarkably open to new experiences and late discoveries – like Carl Nielsen. Imagine embarking upon the awfully big adventure of those six remarkable symphonies so late in his life. He had turned 80 when he made the decision to explore them and as for “that Shostakovich chap” there were pieces there that really fired him (the 10th Symphony), others that were perhaps a bit “pictorial” for his taste.
For such an untheatrical, mild-mannered, man his love of opera, though selective, was great: Wagner, of course, the best of Verdi, and much of the 20th century from Tippett (the memorable premiere of The Knot Garden) and Britten to Berg and Stravinsky and, of course, Berlioz. Turning to concert performances later in life he was effectively endorsing what we had known all along – that in his view the best productions were in our imagination. Sir Colin wasn’t that receptive to the theatre of opera except where it related to the music.
Towards the close of that last public encounter with him I asked him to what he attributed his extraordinary virility. “Better ask my wife”, he said, “it’s something to do with those rice dishes she cooks.” She was Ashraf Naini (his second wife) and her death in 2010 devastated Sir Colin. His decline was fast and visible and as potent a reminder as one could imagine of the proverbial broken heart – except that in this case it really was. In the window of his Highbury home he kept a human skeleton – a constant reminder of our mortality, he said. Interesting that he chose to do all his interviews in that corner of the room.
Sir Colin hated the media circus surrounding classical music today. He loathed the marketing, the selling, the image-making. He honestly couldn’t relate to the idea of charisma as a performing attribute. His charisma was his inner calm and the idea that getting out of the way was ultimately the best you could do for a piece of music.