Today, five years ago, Charles Mackerras died. Well worth resuscitating this remembrance which was initially written for WETA 90.9 where it has since been chucked.
At the age of 84, Charles Mackerras—Alan Charles MacLaurin Mackerras with his full name—has died last Wednesday in London, the city he has called home for over sixty years.
Charles—Sir Charles—Mackerras brought Czech composers to a whole generation of western audiences. When high quality recordings of Dvořák’s and especially Janáček’s operas were few and far between in the West, it was the American-born Australian who supplied us with gold standards for Kátja Kabanová, Jenůfa, and The Macropulos Case—first with western forces and casts, then later, after Eastern Europe became free, with native speakers (for Supraphon) in the Czech Republic or in English (for Chandos). As it turned out, his studies with Václav Talich in Prague had paid even greater dividends for Janáček than Mackerras… if we take for granted today that his masterpieces are part of the canon, operatic and (to a lesser extent) symphonic, it is in some, very large if inestimable, part the legacy of Charles Mackerras.
When historically informed Mozart was still in the ascendency, Mackerras brought us the complete Mozart symphonies on Telarc, with a chamber orchestra, full of unheard-of spirit, and devoid of ideology. For those reared on Mozart with Karl Böhm—lovely though those are in their own way—this was a shot of adrenaline for the listeners and Mozart alike. Music always spoke more strongly with Mackerras than ideology; he wasn’t a man of fad or trends for their own sake, but he was always abreast of the latest developments in music making. If his first Mozart cycle was an obvious example, but in their own, understated way, his second Beethoven Symphony cycle (released on Hyperion) and his second take on Mozart Symphonies (on Linn) made that point more genially-forcefully, still. “A charming and subtle triumph”, I wrote about the last release.
His Brahms, among the first to veer away from the established heavy, German romantic style (Symphonies and Serenades) was eye-opening and raised a few eyebrows. When he performed the Beethoven Symphonies at the Edinburgh Festival, they were very warmly received. Hyperion was bright in getting the tapes and the rights and released the complete cycle into the midst of a catalogue teeming with Beethoven cycles and at a time where new and re-releases were abundant. With the odds against it (Mackerras’ first Beethoven cycle, although the first to use the new Bärenreiter Edition that was part of the selling point for Abbado’s, Rattle’s, and Zinman’s cycles, went straight to EMI’s super bargain label, CfP), this second cycle caused a small and deserved sensation.
Charles Mackerras, who started in music as an oboist, was at home in opera and the operettas of Gilbert & Sullivan just as much as he was in the concert hall; he accompanied singers as ably as he did Alfred Brendel (he even conducted Brendel’s farewell concerts) and always with the self-effacing ease borne of complete mastery and subtle confidence. Although never a flashy conductor, never one to hog or even particularly enjoy the limelight, his splendid reputation made him a consistent draw for record buyers—and record labels responded: With almost 400 recordings on more than two dozen different labels still in the catalogue (and several planned projects now canceled), there are few conductors living (or dead) who have left such a mark in the world of recorded sound.
With his particular penchant and talent for the Czech, Bohemian, and Viennese world of classical music it’s surprising that there is not much Mahler from Mackerras; Das Knaben Wunderhorn on Virgin is the only commercial disc in print… (his Mahler 1st with the Royal Liverpool PO is currently deleted) but a Mahler 6th released by the BBC Music Magazine strongly suggests that he would have succeeded with style in that repertoire as well.
The vast catalog of recordings will assure that the memory of Charles Mackerras will live on for generations. I enjoy all of the above mentioned recordings greatly and they will be played often. But the one Mackerras-recording I cherish the most, the one I have been playing since I first heard that he lost his battle to cancer, is that of the Summer Tale by Josef Suk, glorious, sunny, and genial as Mackerras’ career itself.