Sir Charles Mackerras - Obituary
born Schenectady, New York 17 November 1925
died London 14 July 2010.
Sir Charles Mackerras would not have expected his death to inspire obituaries or grief. He was one of those few, precious artists who did great things without demanding attention for them. Yes, it takes a bit of an ego to step out in front of an audience of thousands and lead a group of musicians in concert, but Mackerras had just that bit of ego and no more.
A conductor of his stature could have done anything he wanted. Mackerras could have taken the best of music director jobs and settled down to a star’s salary and job security. He did not. He could have signed an exclusive contract with a record label and collaborated on a line of slick CDs with his face gracing every cover. He did not. Instead his career strolled through the decades, powered by only two motivating forces: his modesty and his love of music.
I need not mention his musical gifts, for everyone knows them: his gift for communication and rapport with fellow musicians, his divine ability to balance instruments and sections, his ear for telling colors and details, his uncanny way of finding exactly the right tempo, his ability to adapt his approach to any style. Instead, let us remember his passion for his work. For Charles, performing was never about feeding his own ambition or advancing his career. It was about sharing his passion for the music.
In his interviews, in his recordings, in his writings, it is the passion which shines through. Mackerras entered the world of music like a child entering a sweet shop, eyes aglow with wonder. In a talk with David Hurwitz, he explained the birth of his interest in Handel: “when I was a teenager I got to look at a facsimile of [the Water Music score] and I saw immediately that what we were hearing bore little relationship to what Handel had actually written. And with the Fireworks Music, I saw the original orchestration and I thought ‘My God, I wonder what this must sound like!’ You know, the original has 24 oboes … we got every wind player in London to come for one session, in the middle of the night, and have a go at it. It was all edited and issued very quickly, in just a few days, and I must say I was a bit frightened that it would sound horrible.” This is the philosophy of music as adventure. Maybe it would sound horrible (it didn’t), and maybe all the wind players in London would have egg on their faces. The point was to find out. The point was to have fun.
He never left the sweet shop. Per Hurwitz, when he earned his first pay in Prague he spent it all on more music: “I was happy to return to Czechoslovakia, and work for Czech currency, which was non-convertible. I actually conducted throughout Eastern Europe, including East Germany, Poland, and Russia. Of course, what I did with the money was to buy loads of music, scores and parts.” He purchased parts for every instrument, carefully annotating each one for his players’ use. It was in this way that, his curiosity piqued by a “new discovery,” he single-handedly proved to the world that Janáček was one of the great opera composers of the last century. In a sense he even introduced Janáček to the composer’s own country: Charles remarked in an interview for Chandos that “I don’t think that even the Czechs had yet realized what immense profundity there was in Janáček’s operas.”
The passionate advocacy of Janáček, and of Havergal Brian, and of a half-dozen other composers he helped to prominence, came about because Charles was an explorer, and so enthusiastic about his findings that he could not help but bring them back to the rest of us. The delight he took in the music was his only motivation. I never met him, never saw him in concert, and as a Texan probably never set foot in the same time zone as him, but because of his attitude I count Charles my favorite conductor: he found music he loved and placed himself in the music’s service. He asked for no attention himself; all he asked was that we open our ears to the composers he advocated, and that the music he shared would earn the respect it deserved.
Moreover, he had the sense never to perform or record music he did not love, deeply and with both heart and mind. He is often referred to as a “specialist”, and indeed he was a specialist in music which moved him, no matter which century or nation it hailed from. There is no common thread Delius shares with Vořišek, or Janáček with the teenage Mozart, except that Charles felt a connection with them.
He followed his music across continents, across centuries, and across the Iron Curtain. He followed his music past permanent jobs (he held just two chief conductorships in his last twenty-five years of life) to new composers, projects, and discoveries. Right up until his death at 84, Sir Charles was recording new discs of Dvořák, Schubert and Mozart, all for different record labels.
I had the great honor of reviewing one of those new discs, of Dvořák’s symphonic poems. I had high expectations, based on my huge admiration for his previous Dvořák albums, his Edinburgh Beethoven cycle, and the fact that he had just released, with Signum, undoubtedly the best Schubert Ninth I have ever heard. My expectations were surpassed; indeed my final sentence called the new disc “brand-new recordings by an 85-year-old [sic] conductor who shows no sign of ceasing to be one of the greatest classical artists of our era.” Ultimately it was not a loss of new ideas, a drying-up of curiosity, or a diminishing of his sense of wonder which ended Mackerras’s career; it was myeloma. He was a great artist with an open mind and unflagging passion until the day he died.
The idea of a humble performer devoted entirely to the composers he loves found its embodiment in the career of Sir Charles Mackerras. He derived his joy and sense of purpose from his work, from his music. Of his latest Mozart recordings, on Linn Records, he told Mark Forrest of Classic FM he “had finally said all that he had to say about [Mozart] and could die happy.” Judging from the joyfulness of those recordings, he did.
Mackerras on disc and radio - a list by Rob Barnett
As Brian Reinhart says, Mackerras’s interests, causes and enthusiasms were diverse indeed yet he became regarded as a specialist in some areas. More to the point this respected conductor was a musician held in the warmest affection. That affection will endure and be renewed by his legacy of recordings.
Some impression of the breadth of his interests - live concert and recording - can be gained by searching under ‘Mackerras’ on the MusicWeb International site.
His commercial recordings are many and various. His Mozart for Linn and Telarc are notable.
In fact he recorded very extensively for Telarc as the list at the end of this note will confirm.
His first Janacek recording (Sinfonietta and opera preludes), magnificently recorded by the Pro Arte with the sixteen trumpets is exciting still on EMI Encore. He went on to record much more Janacek, Dvorak and Martinu. Of the last two Czechs he stood back from recording any Martinu symphonies and as far as I can recall never tackled the complete Dvorak symphonies. Of Suk there was to be no Asrael yet for Decca circa 1997-99 he set down recordings of Summer’s Tale, Fantastic Scherzo (460 316-2) and the Fantasy for violin and orchestra (466 443-2). The soloist in the last item was Pamela Frank who also recorded with Mackerras the Dvorak Violin Concerto.
His Elgar symphonies from the early 1990s are well worth hearing on Decca - now Australian Eloquence.
His extensive Delius-Decca cycle with the Welsh National Orchestra merits reissue complete as does his recording both DVD (Austrian radio forces) and audio only of A Village Romeo and Juliet.
EMI recorded his first Beethoven cycle in the first half of the 1990s in Liverpool and these were issued on Classics for Pleasure. More recently there has been a very well received Edinburgh Festival cycle on Hyperion.
I greatly enjoyed his big band Mozart when reviewing the Telarc CD of the last two symphonies and hope to review the Mozart symphony box as soon as I can. Don’t forget his 1975 recordings of the same two works as reissued on CFP.
I also reviewed his rather good Sibelius Second some years ago. It’s on Regis.
I also browsed through my radio etc recording database which gives another perspective on his activities. It is by no means representative; quite the contrary but will open another window:-
Bax Coronation March LPO Readers' Digest LP RDS 8024
Bax Tintagel BBCSO 1980 Proms
Brian Faust: Prologue - In Heaven BBCSO, Swift, Robinson, Mitchinson, Thomas, John Noble
Brian Symphony No 2 BBCSO
Brian Symphony No 27 New Philharmonia 1979
Brian Symphony No 31 New Philharmonia 1979
Brian Symphony No 31 RLPO EMI CDC 7 49558 2
Brian Tinker's Wedding Comedy Overture EMI CDC 7 49558 2
Bridge The Sea - Suite BBCCO 1979 Proms
Coates At the Dance, By the Sleepy Lagoon, Man from the Sea, Three Bears Phantasy, Music Everywhere LSO 1971 CD CDCFPD 4456
Arnold Cooke Clarinet Concertino Goldsbrough Orchestra, De Peyer (clarinet) fp 1964?
Delius Paris, Cello Concerto, Concerto for Violin and Cello CD RLPO Wallfisch (cello) Little (violin) 1991 Liverpool EMI CD EMX 2185
Elgar Romance LSO Lloyd-Webber 1986 EMI CDM 7 64726 2
Gordon Jacob Viola Concerto No. 2 ECO Paul Neubauer (viola) 1979
Martinů Double Concerto Double String Orchestra, Piano and Timpani Brno St Phil Orch Conifer CDCF 210
Martinu Sinfonietta Giocosa Australian CO Dennis Hennig Conifer 1940 CDCF 210
Martinu The Greek Passion Mackerras Brno St Philharmonic Orchestra, Mitchinson, Field, Tomlinson, Joll, 1981 Supraphon 1116 3611/2
Mozart Clarinet Concerto BBCSO John Bradbury (cl) 1976
Thea Musgrave The Five Ages of Man BBCSO and Choir 1963
Humphrey Searle Three Roseingrave Pieces ECO
Sullivan Cello Concerto LSO Lloyd Webber 1986 EMI CDM 7 64726 2
Whettam Graham Sinfonia Intrepida BBCSO 1981
Williamson Malcolm Two Piano Concerto Mackerras BBCCO Williamson Lympany 1979 Proms
I do not doubt - and indeed welcome - that the companies will now pay further tribute to Mackerras with reissues, collected Mackerras Editions, boxed sets and the issue of radio tapes of which there are presumably a very large number. We can only speculate what commercial recording session tapes have yet to appear.
The Mackerras Telarc recordings:-
FIDELIO CD80439 SCOTTISH CHMBR ORCH
CD80522: SERENADE NO 1 & 2
CD80463 SYM NO 1 IN C
CD80464 SYM NO 2 IN D
CD80465 SYM NO 3 IN F
GILBERT & SULLIVAN (WELSH NATNL OPERA)
CD80500 (COMPLETE BOXSET)
CD80374: HMS PINAFORE
CD80353: PIRATES OF PENZANCE
CD80404: THE YEOMAN OF THE GUARD
HANDEL (ORCH OF ST LUKE'S)
CD80279 WATER MUSIC
HAYDN (ORCHESTRA ST LUKES)
CD80311: SYMPHONIES NO 101 & 104
CD80156: SYMPHONIES NO 31 & 45
CD80282: SYMPHONY NO 100
MOZART (Scottish CO Prague CO)
2CD80735 EVERYBODYS MOZART HIGHLIGHTS - DON GIOVANNI ETC
2CD80736 EVERYBODYS MOZART HIGHLIGHTS - MAGIC FLUTE ETC
CD80449 SCO MARRIAGE OF FIGARO: HIGHLIGHTS
3CD80728 SCO: COSI FAN TUTTE
CD80399 SCO COSI FAN TUTTE (HIGHLIGHTS)
CD80544 SCO: DIE ENTFUHRUNG AUS DEM SERAIL
3CD80726 SCO: DON GIOVANNI
CD80442 SCO: DON GIOVANNI HIGHLIGHTS
CD80108 PRAGUE CO MOZART: EINE KLEINE NACHTMUSIK
CD80529 SCO: FAVORITE ARIAS
CD80161 PRAGUE CO: HAFFNER SERENADE
CD80367 SCO: HORN CONCERTI
CD80345 SCO: MAGIC FLUTE HIGHLIGHTS
CD80359 ORCH OF ST LUKE'S: SERENADE GRAN PARTITA
2CD80759 PRAGUE CO: SYMPHONIES
CD80242 PRAGUE CO: SYMPHONIES 14 - 18
CD80256 PRAGUE CO: SYMPHONIES 1-7
CD80217 PRAGUE CO: SYMPHONIES 19 - 23
CD80273 PRAGUE CO: SYMPHS 10,46,42,12,13
CD80186 PRAGUE CO: SYMPHS 24,26,27,30
CD80165 PRAGUE CO: SYMPHS 25, 28 & 29
CD80190 PRAGUE CO: SYMPHS 31, 33 & 34
CD80203 PRAGUE CO: SYMPHS 32, 35 & 39
CD80148 PRAGUE CO: SYMPHS 36 & 38
CD80139 PRAGUE CO: SYMPHS 40 & 41
CD80272 PRAGUE CO: SYMPHS 8,9,44,47,45,11
CD80729 MACKERRAS/PRAGUE CO: THE COMPLETE SYMPHONIES
2CD80727 SCOTTISH CO: THE MAGIC FLUTE
3CD80725 SCOTTISH CO THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO
RIMSKY KORSAKOV (LSO)
CD80502 SCOTTISH CHMBR ORC: SYMPHONIES 8 & 9
CD80151 ROYAL PHIL ORCH: SWAN LAKE
CD80137 LONDON SYMP ORCH TCHAIKOVSKY: THE NUTCRACKER
CD80140 LONDON SYMP ORCH THE NUTCRACKER (EXCERPTS)