Charles Mackerras

edited by The Boydell Press, 2015.
xxii + 298 pp, £25.00. ISBN 978 1 84383 966 8

For the last ten years, two sisters (one my age, the other about nine years younger) used to have a meal with me in Greenwich during the Early Music Exhibition in November. This year, the conversations happened to turn to Charles Mackerras. All three of us were entirely enthusiastic, aware of his power back in the mid-60s. Our links then were with the Dartington Summer School, and the first time I saw him close up (sometime in the mid or late ‘60s), I watched him conduct a students orchestra playing Beethoven’s first symphony. It was a very accurate and helpful rehearsal, but when it was played in the evening concert his conducting was absolutely different: everything was at a different level. The younger sister loved music, but moved into art. Eventually, she finished up at the Coliseum, selling programmes, and heard Mackerras performances long after I’d left London. I was, however, involved with him in that he used my edition of Alcina, and he said that we were joint editors: did he ever used it again?

My initial awareness of him came from Sadlers Wells (the predecessor of The Coliseum) in the 1960s, and I was especially concerned with Janáček. I’d never heard of him before, and very few people outside Czechoslovakia (apart from German translations) will have heard the music. Mackerras has been the leading figure in creating Janáček’s reputation. Charles wasn’t trained as a musical scholar, but he needed to study the scores, restore the composer’s idiosyncratic style, and make some sense when the autograph was confused. He was busy enough in normal repertories, but his work on Janáček could fill the working life of a scholar! The advantage of Charles was his determination to read any score he conducted as well as the usual indications to the performers. The score was essential – even with pieces he knew well, he still managed during a performance to find something he didn’t know. He favoured regular tempi, perhaps as he grew older, it might have varied a little more, but certainly not to excess. His concern was the music, not over-exciting the audience.

He was always concerned in checking the sources when there were problems – especially in the case of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. He wanted it to sound like Mozart, and he spent years of research; checking the sources, filling the gaps in cadences (the closing third filling the middle note or adding a cadenza etc.) There’s a nice reproduction in the book (p. 18) with markings on a score but noted at the top “Not at ROH!” In retrospect, I wonder if I’d have bothered to go to the opera if the stagings were from the wrong period! I was particularly impressed by the apparently massive room for Act III. His two-midnight-recording in 1959 for Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks used the full number of players – fortunately, Handel listed the numbers of each stave on the score!

Charles made no particular effort to encourage period instruments, the exception being The Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment, mostly in 19th-century repertoire – though his last performance (12 June 2010) was Cosi fan tutti at Glyndebourne. He became Chief Guest Conductor for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, which was a standard chamber orchestra but with early horns, trombones and timps. I don’t think that he was particularly concerned about early strings, etc., but he always made a good sound. Of greater interest to him were in the right speeds, the shaping of the playing and the relationship with the orchestra.

He was often worried about the singers. He seemed happier with those of the 1960s than later ones. Interestingly, he wrote: “I’m always amazed at how much like a modern ‘authentic’ singer Isobel Baillie sounds. If you listen to her singing ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’, it’s uncannily reminiscent of Emma Kirkby… The trouble with ‘authentic’ people is that they say they are going back to an 18th-century style, but in fact they are playing in a late 20th-century style that is a reaction against the way all 18th-century composers were played between the wars.” I’m not sure that all aspects of the inter-war years were particularly to be copied, but certainly there were disastrous changes in the second half of 20th-century opera. “There used to be an ‘operatic’ style of acting which made sense of the fact that an aria consisted of the repetition of words, or an ensemble repeated the same idea which non-musical directors find quite difficult to cope with. They either have to make everybody rush about the stage, or else make them stand still and not express anything. The older generation found a way of doing that.” (pp. 96-97)

His last appearance was probably September. Charles was clearly at the end, but he conducted Acis and Galatea as an 80th birthday present to an old friend, Pam Munks (who had also worked in Australia). I think the direction was by Peter Holman as much as by Charles, but he was happy to sit in front of the stage and talk to the audience afterwards.

Clifford Bartlett