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Sir Charles Mackerras 1925-2010

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Sir Charles Mackerras, who has died aged 84, was the maestro who bookmarked the life of every  music lover of the past six decades. We think of him as our own, yet he was a fifth-generation Australian who joined the British music scene only after studying in Prague with Václav Talich – an experience which led, famously, to a lifelong connection with the Czech people and their music.

I had the delight of interviewing Mackerras thirty-odd years ago on a day when he was buoyant with enthusiasm at the launch of a new opera recording, Martinů's The Greek Passion. The thing that gave him the greatest pleasure, I remember, was the way that project had brought together two groups of his musical friends, a roster of soloists from Welsh National Opera and the musicians of his beloved Brno State Philharmonic. A small point maybe, but one that demonstrates how Mackerras was loved and respected across a wide range of frontiers, both international and musical.

Opera is our brief, but where to start with such a giant? It has to be Mozart. Having made an early mark in the late forties and fifties, Mackerras's reputation was sealed by a stylistically famous Figaro at Sadlers Wells (1966) that helped prise open some reluctant doors to authentic practice. How fitting, then, that his final podium appearance should have been with Così fan tutte, only last month, conducting the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in the current Glyndebourne revival. Between times, of course, he conducted the entire Mozart repertoire many times over, and in recent years he produced an Indian summer's-worth of outstanding  recordings as well, most with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra of which he was Conductor Emeritus, that capture his ever-youthful readings of these operas. 
Among British composers Mackerras had a strong affinity with Britten, despite being frozen out of the Aldeburgh magic circle following an ill-judged quip that touched a little too close to the thin-skinned composer's home. He conducted the world première of Noye's Fludde, the television version of Billy Budd (with Peter Pears as Vere) and the definitive Decca recording of Gloriana. Indeed, only a few months ago he won high praise at ENO with a work he had conducted in alternation with Britten himself during its earliest performances, The Turn of the Screw.

The most remarkable thing about Charles Mackerras was the all-encompassing nature of his repertoire. He was at ease with any composer, era or style, apparently spurning nothing at all provided its musical value was high. His years with Hamburg Opera and Sadlers Wells/ENO had exposed him to the widest imaginable gamut, and there were no obvious musical blind spots. Over the years some commentators have thoughtlessly undervalued him on account of this very eclecticism, and until a decade or two ago he was dismissed by a certain coterie of musical snobs as no more than a journeyman conductor with a slight penchant for Janéček. We know better today, thank goodness.

Nevertheless, Janéček is the single most dominant figure in Mackerras's CV. It is quite possible that without his championing of the operas this glorious music would still be languishing on the periphery. He introduced Katya Kabanova to Britain as early as 1951 and went on to give first performances in this country of The Makropoulos Affair and From the House of the Dead. He also conducted most of the operas in Brno, Janéček's home town, and in 1977 his recording of Katya (in his own revised edition) marked the launch of his celebrated Decca cycle. In 2010, this year of fitting full-circle moments, he bade farewell to the Royal Opera House with The Cunning Little Vixen, a reading described here by Simon Thomas as "a translucent, at times glowing, performance of one of the composer's most glorious scores… Thank goodness for Sir Charles Mackerras". Amen to that.


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