Sad to learn of the death, at age 84, of Sir Charles Mackerras, the Australian conductor who was recognized, by the end of his life, as one of the best conductors in the world. In England, where Mackerras usually worked, there were a lot of solid journeyman conductors who never quite became big names; London is a busy town, musically, but as in America, the chief conductorial posts usually went to foreign celebrities. Like Edward Downes, John Pritchard, Reginald Goodall, and other local conductors, Mackerras had a good reputation in England and in some other spots (his native Australia; parts of Germany; Prague) without ever breaking into the big time, though he was always a more interesting conductor than most of his peers.
His international reputation was made in 1976 through one of those fortuitous things that used to happen in the record industry: the British company Decca had a contract with the Vienna Philharmonic for a certain number of sessions per year, but had run out of repertoire and conductors to fill up those sessions. Trying to figure out what to do with those unused sessions, Decca producer James Mallinson decided it might be time to do the first international recordings of the Czech composer Leos Janáček, whose operas — with their combination of modernism, folksiness, and vocal lines that mimicked the rhythm of spoken Czech — were starting to become known outside his home country. (Vienna is not far from Prague, so it was easier to import Czech singers there.) Mackerras, who had studied in Prague, had edited new editions of Janáček’s original scores, and had led notable performances of the operas in England, was the obvious choice to conduct the recordings; the first one was successful and he wound up recording five complete Janáček operas in Vienna. This led to a higher profile, as well as more recording work.
Mackerras may in fact be one of the most-recorded conductors of all time. He recorded all of Mozart’s symphonies, seven Mozart operas, two complete Beethoven symphony cycles, the aforementioned Janáček, lots of baroque music, three or four recordings of Schubert’s ninth symphony, all the Brahms symphonies, plenty of operas on DVD (including a Don Giovanni on Blu-Ray from Covent Garden, starring Simon Keenlyside) and much, much more.
Apart from Janáček, Mackerras was particularly associated with Mozart; he was a pioneer in arguing that Mozart’s operas should be performed with unwritten notes and ornamentation (added cadenzas, etc), the way Mozart expected. Basically he argued that performers and conductors should put back all the unwritten stuff that was banned by purist conductors who thought — wrongly — that they were being “authentic” by only playing what was written in the score. Mackerras recorded the Mozart operas that way — four of the recordings were recently made available in a cheap box by Telarc, his main recording company for many years — and many performers and conductors now follow his lead when singing Mozart.
Beethoven was another composer he was good at, though he was only one of several conductors pushing for more authentic interpretations (closer, in this case, to Beethoven’s metronome markings). His second recording of the complete symphonies, made live at the Edinburgh Festival for his 80th birthday, is available cheap from Hyperion records and is pretty wonderful: fast speeds, brutal and scary drums, and an appreciation of Beethoven’s underrated sense of humour.
The opera company he was most associated with was the Sadler’s Wells, later English National Opera, performing operas in English translation. Here is a clip of him conducting an English-language production of Donizetti’s Mary Stewart, which recently showed up (in Italian) here in Toronto:
And here he is in a recording session, though inevitably we see little of him and more of the singer, Renee Fleming.