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 Recording of the Week  Sir Charles Mackerras

It is with much sadness that I have to report the death of the great Australian conductor and musicologist Sir Charles Mackerras, who died last week following a lengthy battle with cancer. I saw him just a few weeks ago conducting Così fan tutte at Glyndebourne, and while it clearly took some effort getting to and from the podium, once he was there his performance was as vivid and exciting as ever – full of rhythmic energy and infused with love and joy for the score. He was a remarkable man in many ways and his contribution to classical music and the legacy which he has left behind is immense.

Sir Charles Mackerras
Sir Charles Mackerras

He was born in New York in 1925 to Australian parents and grew up in Sydney. After a few years as an oboist with the ABC Sydney Orchestra (now the Sydney Symphony) he left for London in 1947 at the age of just 21. The first real defining moment in his career came later that year when he won a scholarship to study with Václav Talich in Prague. As it turned out he wasn’t there very long as the Communist uprising in February 1948 hastened his return to London, but in that time he had become infatuated with the music of Leoš Janácek and so returned to England determined to introduce it to a wider audience. Mackerras immediately recognised Janácek for what he was – one of the most original and creative voices of the 20th Century. He conducted the UK premiere of Káta Kabanová in 1951 and went on to take the composer from a minority taste to one of the mainstays of the operatic and orchestral repertoire.

Throughout his life Mackerras was also a keen musicologist, always anxious to discover new things about the repertoire and to get to the heart of the composer's wishes. His revelatory Handel and Mozart performances and recordings of the 1950s and 1960s were at the very forefront of the period instrument movement, and he want on to edit and produce a number of scores and editions which are still widely used today.

Despite his clear expertise in the areas mentioned above he never allowed himself to be pigeonholed and always conducted a wide variety of repertoire. In fact the more I look at it, the more immense his range of repertoire seems. For example he had a real love and affinity with the British composer Arthur Sullivan. In 1951 he arranged some of the composer’s music into the ballet Pineapple Poll which proved a huge success and is still performed today. And when the score and parts of the composer’s cello concerto were lost in a fire in 1964, Mackerras made a reconstruction of it based on his memory of having conducted it eleven years previously! He brought true classical style to Gluck, and dramatic intensity and excitement to Verdi and Richard Strauss.

It is somewhat surprising that he was never signed to a major record label, but as it turns out probably quite fortuitous as I’m sure he was able to push the different projects which were close to his own heart around the different labels much more successfully than he would had he been signed to a major label. So we’ve ended up (amongst a lot of other things) with his amazing Janácek opera cycle with the Vienna Philharmonic on Decca, his marvellous Gilbert and Sullivan operetta cycle on Telarc, his exhilarating Beethoven Symphony cycle on Hyperion, and his recent award winning Mozart Symphony cycle on Linn. In fact we have over 200 recordings from Mackerras listed, full details of which you can browse here.

He was much loved by musicians who described him as gentle and charming whilst at the same time utterly focussed and inspiring. He will be much missed, but his achievements and legacy are already firmly cemented in history.

Janacek -The Operas

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Charles Mackerras

Includes Jenufa, The Cunning Little Vixen, From the House of the Dead, The Makropulos Case, Káta Kabanová, Sinfonietta and Taras Bulba

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC

Gilbert & Sullivan: Operettas

Welsh National Opera, Charles Mackerras

Includes Trial by Jury, The Pirates of Penzance, HMS Pinafore, The Mikado and The Yeomen of the Guard

Available Format: CD

Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 1-9 (complete)

Janice Watson (soprano), Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano), Stuart Skelton (tenor) & Detlef Roth (bass), Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Philharmonia Orchestra & Edinburgh Festival Chorus, Sir Charles Mackerras

“A decisive interpretation, reinforced by a near-flawless and totally committed performance, and driven by an energy and vitality that conductors half the age of the venerable octogenarian Mackerras could only dream of emulating./i The Herald

Available Format: CD

Mozart - Symphonies Nos. 38 - 41

Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Sir Charles Mackerras

“Mackerras's performance is as thrilling as one would expect from this great Mozart conductor. Possibly their finest record to date…I don't know more enthralling accounts of the G minor and the Jupiter on disc.”/i Sunday Times

Available Format: SACD

Mozart - Symphonies Nos. 29, 31, 32, 35 & 36

Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Sir Charles Mackerras

“The Haffner is the king of this pack. Mackerras explores its shapes and textures with particular care. Opening and closing movements crackle with electricity. Everything comes stamped with character, intelligence and beauty.”/I The Times

Available Format: SACD