The Australian conductor Charles Mackerras, internationally acclaimed for his championship of Czech repertoire and Janáček’s operas in particular, has died aged 84.
In a long and distinguished career, he worked with most leading musicians of his time, including singers such as Janet Baker, Birgit Nilsson, Lucia Popp, Roberto Alagna, Renée Fleming and Bryn Terfel, and rising young artists such as soprano Danielle de Niese.
He was the first non-Briton to conduct the BBC Last Night of the Proms in 1980.
Born in New York of Australian parents, his family returned to Australia when he was two and he studied in Sydney. He first conducted when principal oboist with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Settling in England in 1947, he won a British Council scholarship to study conducting in Prague with Václav Talich, one of the foremost interpreters of Dvořák. ‘It was really a great privilege,’ Mackerras told BBC Music Magazine earlier this year, ‘actually having him talking man to man about all his favourite music.’
It was during that time that Mackerras developed his enthusiasm for the operas of Janáček. Back in London he became a staff conductor at Sadler’s Wells, where in 1951 he conducted the British premiere of the Czech composer’s opera Katya Kabanova.
He also took a practical interest in the period performance of Baroque music, before such research was commonplace; this culminated in his 1959 recording of Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks, using 62 wind players and nine percussionists, the authentic forces for which Handel had originally composed.
His interest in historical performance practice also resulted in a landmark performance of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro in 1965. In that production, his use of musical ornamentation such as Mozart would have recognised – backed by an article Mackerras published in Opera ‘What Mozart Really Meant’ – has had a lasting influence on performance practice.
Mackerrras was musical director of the Welsh National Opera from 1987 to 1992, where his Janáček productions in particular received critical praise. He continued his pursuit of authentic performance practice with a production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor (1989) in which he had the orchestral players arranged in early 19th-century manner, behind as well as in front of him.
His other great enthusiasm was for the music of Arthur Sullivan. He not only performed and recorded several Gilbert and Sullivan operettas but also arranged a ballet Pineapple Poll (1951) from Sullivan’s music, and reconstructed the score of the Cello Concerto when the original manuscript and parts were destroyed in a fire at Chappell’s, having conducted the work 11 years previously.
Though Mackerras was noted for his phenomenal memory, he insisted on conducting with a score before him, even when performing such familiar works as Mozart’s late symphonies – of which he made a BBC Music Magazine Award-winning recording released in 2008.
‘I’ve conducted these works hundreds of times,’ he explained to BBC Music Magazine, ‘yet when I look down at the score I often notice something that has never struck me before. And I try to bring it out in the performance.’
Five landmark recordings from Sir Charles Mackerras
Meet the Artist: Danielle de Niese on working with Charles Mackerras
CD Review: Mackerras conducts Dvořák’s Symphonies Nos 7 & 8
CD Review: Mozart’s Don Giovanni from Charles Mackerras