Recording of the Week Sir Edward Downes
British conductor Sir Edward Downes and his wife Joan died last weekend at an assisted suicide clinic in Zurich. They had been married for 54 happy years and decided to end their own lives together rather than continue to struggle with serious health problems. He was 85 and had become almost blind and increasingly deaf, while she had recently been diagnosed with cancer. I met Sir Edward a couple of times while I was reading music at Birmingham University. He was then the president of our University Music Society having previously also been a student there, and he came across as one of the kindest and most down to earth people you could ever meet.
In fact by general consensus he was a thoroughly nice man, well loved by orchestras for his kind persona and unassuming way. He was also completely devoted to the music, and his passion inspired many singers and musicians to some truly great performances. His long and fruitful association with the Royal Opera House began in 1952 as an assistant to Rafael Kubelik and over the next fifty years conducted 950 performances of 49 different operas. Elsewhere he became Music Director of Opera Australia in 1970 and conducted the first performance in the Sydney Opera House in 1973 (the Australian premiere of Prokofiev’s War and Peace). He was also closely associated with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra (previously the BBC Northern) with whom he also made a number of recordings.
In the opera house Downes was renowned for his performances of Verdi, particularly the early works. In 1993 he gave the first professional British performance of Stiffelio, in an edition that he had prepared himself. In all, he conducted 25 of Verdi’s 28 operas and at the end of the 1990s he was the driving force behind a scheme to perform Verdi’s complete operatic oeuvre to mark the centenary of his death.
He was also an expert in Russian music and gave many first performances in the west of works by Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky, translated many Russian librettos, prepared performing editions and completed scores to Prokofiev’s Maddalena and Eugene Onegin. He also championed the works of modern English composers, premiering among other works, Richard Rodney Bennett's Victory (1970), Peter Maxwell-Davies's Taverner (1972) and John Tavener's Thérèse (1979).
Once asked why he had never achieved the fame and recognition that some of his colleagues had achieved he replied “I suppose because I wasn’t enough of a bastard. Solti, you see, he was a bastard – a marvellous man and a great conductor, but a complete bastard when he needed to be. That sort of ruthlessness just wasn’t in my nature." What mattered most to Downes was making great music with great musicians. He did plenty of that and will be sadly missed.
Unlike some of his contemporaries he didn't make a huge number of recordings, and a fair number of those are not currently available but if you want to browse through what is currently available you can do so here.