Thursday, 15 July 2010
Charlie for aye
No, I never called him that, and 'Jack' Lanchbery was the only colleague of his I've met who did know him as the legendary 'Charlie Mackerras', but on the other hand he never insisted on the 'Sir' either. The most comprehensive conductor of our time, and to my mind the world's greatest Mozart interpreter without any shadow of a doubt, has died at the age of 84. It was no shock - that came when I phoned last Summer and Lady M told me candidly that Charles was down in Dartington being treated for his terminal myeloma. I hadn't known, so that was upsetting.
The only surprise was that he went without fulfilling all the engagements in his diary (still pencilled in for the Proms and next season). But miraculously, or perhaps simply naturally and humanly, I believe he did conduct every one of his Cosi performances at Glyndebourne. He'd had to withdraw from the Ariadne-in-English recording for Chandos and from what was advertised as his last Beethoven Ninth with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, but conserved enough strength to see through Janacek's Cunning Little Vixen at the Garden. Characteristically brisk and colourful, it did, I think, show a few signs of waning power, but then the recording remains, and always has been since I first heard it, a Desert Island Disc.
Ismene Brown just summed it all up perfectly in an e-mail: 'He is the Forester in Vixen - knows better than anybody how life is
fulfilled and then ends'. He felt it painful that his illness wouldn't allow him the stamina to get through complete Wagner operas in the last years, but there was no need to apologise for bleeding chunks at his Wagner concert with the Philharmonia and the divine Christine Brewer last December.
Visiting Hamilton Terrace, I always felt like a student attending a tutorial with a very wise professor (or, let's face it, a son in search of a father). Each time we talked about a specific work or composer: Beethoven's Leonore/Fidelio, Mozart's Magic Flute and Cosi, his Sullivan potpourri-ballet Pineapple Poll, Janacek, Britten's Gloriana. If he was testy - and he could be a bit of a martinet back in the 1950s, I'm told - I never saw it; only total collegial enthusiasm. Prize memory: sitting in with him and Felicity Lott during Edinburgh recording sessions for Cosi as they tried out alternative ornamentations for Fiordiligi's 'Per pieta'. Since she's such a modest lady, too, they asked me which I liked best. And that, in fact, was the one they used on the recording, though I've no idea whether my choice had anything to do with it in the end.
Here, finally, then, is the rest of the postcard from which I took the above sign-off. I'd sent him a card from Janacek's Hukvaldy, so Smetana seemed like a good riposte.
It's all I have from him in writing, though I was going to pay a visit and get him to sign my old LP of Pineapple Poll and the New Janacek Edition score of Katya Kabanova. He did say two priceless things in interview: in passing he talked about 'people like you, who are publicists for music', which is a nice way of looking at a critic, and at the end of one occasion, he said how much he liked the Gramophone interviews we'd done: 'I don't usually read interviews with myself - but yours I do read, because they give a sense of the person'.
But this is becoming All About Me - hell, if I can't stick it here, where else can I? I loved that man, anyway, and his recordings will be with us always. This morning I remembered him with the jolly Prague Mozart 41 and another Jupiter - the one in Strauss's Die Liebe der Danae, which he recorded with BBC forces and Norman Bailey.
A listening postscript - what makes me sadder than remembering a life well lived to its natural end is how many of the great singers on Mackerras's recordings died before their time. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson on his Idomeneo. Jerry Hadley on his Flute and Cosi. Lucia Popp on The Cunning Little Vixen. Philip Langridge on the Gloriana. But, again, at least we have them caught forever. I'm off to listen to the Idomeneo quartet now.
A second listening postscript - thanks to 'Tannengrin' on Parterre for linking to this YouTube sound-only track. I didn't know where to start for Mackerras recordings, but Bryn's rather stylish appropriation of tenor Jupiter's (that name again!) 'Where'er you walk' from Handel's Semele, with our late master conducting the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, makes a perfectly well-tempered farewell.