The conductor Sir Charles Mackerras died yesterday; he was 84. Celebrated for his wide musical sympathies, Mackerras enjoyed a career that spanned 60 years and took him all over the world.
Born in New York to Australian parents, Mackerras studied music in Sydney and joined the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, becoming its principal oboist. He came to London to study and, on winning a British Council scholarship in 1947, he travelled to Prague to study with the great Czech conductor Václav Talich; and there began a love affair with Czech music, a field for which he did so much during his long career. In 1947 he married Judy Wilkins, who survives him.
On returning to England he worked with the Sadler’s Wells Opera (which later became English National Opera), and he maintained his relationship with the company from 1948 until his death, conducting operas by composers such as Handel, Gluck, Donizetti and Janá ček (1951 saw him conduct the first British performance of Káta Kabanová). From 1954 to 1956 he was principal conductor of the BBC Concert Orchestra and from 1965 to 1969 he was principal conductor of the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra. He made his Covent Garden debut in 1963 (Shostakovich’s Katerina Ismailova), and his Met debut in 1972 (Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice), becoming a regular visitor to both houses. In 1973 with the Sydney SO and Birgit Nilsson, he gave the opening concert at the Opera House in Sydney.
Other posts he held included music director of Welsh National Opera (1987-92), principal guest conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (1992-95, after which he became conductor emeritus), music director of New York’s Orchestra of St Luke’s (1998-2001), principal guest conductor of the Philharmonia (from 2004) and principal guest conductor of the Czech Philharmonic.
In 1951, he made an arrangement of music drawn from the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan (their copyright having just lapsed) for a ballet choreographed by John Cranko. It was called Pineapple Poll and was hugely successful, first at Sadler’s Wells and then in numerous other productions. It has been recorded many times, including three times by Mackerras himself. He later made a similar ballet, The Lady and the Fool, drawing on Verdi’s ballet music, a work he also recorded (now on CfP).
His areas of musical expertise were extraordinarily diverse. He was a superb interpreter of the music of Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Verdi, Donizetti, Mahler, Elgar, Dvořák, Janáček, Delius, Britten and many more. His discography was vast and wonderfully illustrated his musical sympathies – his cycle of Janáček operas for Decca was one of his crowning achievements, but so were his two Beethoven symphony cycles (RLPO and SCO/Philharmonia for CfP and Hyperion respectively), he always spoke with pride of his ‘authentic’ Lucia di Lammermoor (Sony Classical). His Mozart symphony cycle (Prague CO) and many of the Mozart operas (SCO) - both for Telarc – were very fine; and his re-makes of the late Mozart symphonies for Linn with the SCO garnered numerous awards. His recordings of Martinů, Dvořák and Janáček with the Czech PO for Supraphon were enthusiastically welcomed. And, from early in his career, his discs of Handel’s Water Music (complete with 26 oboes) and Janáček’s Sinfonietta for Pye gained something a cult following. From the 1950s onwards he was a committed exponent of 'historically informed' performance practice and worked with 'period' ensembles as well as encouraging 'modern' ensembles to play in a 'period' style.
He recorded for many different labels including EMI (and its Virgin Classics, CfP and EMI Eminence labels), Decca, DG (and Arkiv), Sony Classical, Telarc, Chandos, Hyperion, Linn, Supraphon, Pye, ASV, RPO Records and Signum (on its Philharmonia imprint).
His won numerous Gramophone Awards, including a Recording of the Year for Janáček’s Kát'a Kabanová (1977), Janáček’s From the House of the Dead (1980) and Dvořák’s Rusalka (1999). And in this year’s nominations, Mackerras conducts two of the six short-listed discs in the Orchestral category.
A full tribute to Sir Charles Mackerras will appear in the September issue of Gramophone.