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.


Willym said...

Dear David

Thank you so much for this post. I only saw him conduct once - many years ago. It was 1978 to be exact - at Aix, Dido and Aeneas with Dame Janet Baker. I was amazed to find a video excerpt of it on Youtube. But I do have many of the records you've mentioned.

And as to this post - he was right you know, you do give a "sense of person".

David said...

Generous as ever, Will, thanks. And getting the Mackerras-Dame Janet Dido at Aix is still quite something: I must take a look on YouTube.

More to come on The Arts Desk - we're trying to get a kind of condolences book of reminiscences, have to wait and see what develops.

Piala Murray said...

Hi David,

Just found out, so poppped to this page as I know how much it meant to you. Nice to know he was conducting right to the end, though - I only saw him last year at the Proms, thinking about how what an impossibly long life back he'd already had, yet wondering how he had the physical strength to still do it! But then I learned never to underestimate the pure mental driving force of active octogenarians. Mining riches unto themselves - in a world of added experience we'll never know, unless lucky enough ourselves to one day get there.
It's like asking, "Grandad, what was it then that you used to do when you were young?"; "Oh, I used to lead a very glamourous life conducting major symphony orchestras. But that was a long time ago now - last week".

JVaughan said...

My interest in our Maestro
began with Handel. First came the famous 1959 account of the _Fireworks_, his also-famous
1966 _Messiah_ following. Our understanding of Handelian practice has changed since, and neither of those
recordings now figure, though I may play some of both in tribute because of their initial influence. I began
writing him in 1969, continuing for much of 35 years! I would meet him
3 times during my 1977 UK visit, at the Coliseum for _Boheme_ and
and at St. John's Smith Square for Stravinsky and Haydn (_Nelson_).
There was a dispute at ENO then, and he told me that
he had talked with a recalcitrant cellist, but, like yourself, never
experienced his temper, though think he may have been frank
a thing or two near the end not involving me. We had one
bit of a disagreement in our correspondence, but he handled it
with _UTTER_ grace!

As for favourite recordings, I think I would start with 1970's excerpts
from _Gotterdammerung_
which just came to my attention a few years ago. Two singers from the Goodall _Ring_ are here, but in
German. While I feel the Siegfried takes time to get going in the "Dawn Duet," both give us some _MOST_-_Ravishing_ Puccini in the closing bars, meant as a compliment since Wagner liked Italianate singing! And _WHAT_ orchestral playing
throughout, though it occasionally may just slightly drown the singers. I know you love your Philharmonia Elgar
and hope it was indeed recorded and releasable. Yet I would now be _QUITE_ content to take
his Argo recording to a desert island with his _Dream_ _Children_! Of Strauss, I like his _Don_ _Juan_ and
_Till_! Despite some possibly-squally singing from
Miss Bullock, I cannot overlook his _Salome_ either! Despite
that omitted repeat, I like all of his Mahler, though prefer his newer
Philharmonia recording of the _Fourth_ _Symphony_. Do you know his _Knaben_ _Wunderhorn_ _Songs_? I hope you also like his first (LSO) recording of Sibelius _Two_
and the fillers on his other. Another is his disc of
Ballet, but regret him not having recorded any Symphonies (the _Fifth_), though did hear of him conducting the _Pathetique_. Did he like any Prokofiev, having only recorded, so far as I know,
an unheard _Peter_ _And_ _The_ _Wolf_? I enjoy his
_Five_, his _Festive_ _Overture_ even more! If I could have only one
Mozart, it would be his Telarc _Zauberflote_, though I
also like others, e.g., _Don_ _Giovanni_ and the first of his new SCO
Symphonies (I have yet to buy the second). To bring La Gritton in, we cannot overlook his _Requiem_ either. This takes us to Czech music via his _Bartered_ _Bride_, which, at
time, was the most-moving recording experience for her, and one can
_CERTAINLY_ hear why! Of Janacek, I have a hard time between
his OIE
_Jenufa_ and _Makropoulos_! I have yet to warm to _CLV_, though that CG
performance of which you wrote may be the best way for me, if possible, to get inside it, though, of
course, La Popp is a _RAVISHING_ singer! As for G&S, I have two _SUPERB_ _Mikados_ from him, one official and the other not, as well as that unofficial _Ida_ of which I previously told you! Then there is the also-_SUPERB_ Telarc _Trial_ and last Summer's Proms _Patience_, joining Sir Charles in preferring his LPO _Pineapple_! I further like that _Gloriana_, and must not leave his _FIERY_ Australian _Missa_ _Solemnis_!
Returning to Handel to close, I
have Mr. Terfel's disc, so maybe should also dip into it.

I did not know of his cancer until reading this morning of this regretted occasion.

It would be nice if you are able to arrange that condolence
book, especially if Lady Mackerras is to see it.

J. V.

Gavin Plumley said...

What a gorgeous tribute David.

David said...

Well, Gavin, we both know what those Janacek recordings mean in the greater scheme of things. I liked one comment which said he was 'one of the many forms of God'.

And thanks for yours, too. Hope you can lay your hands on his Mozart recordings in Vienna.

JVaughan said...

How could I have forgotten his Brahms and Haydn? The Brahms Symphonies, with their smaller forces and brighter lower brass, are as exciting as I expect to hear, though might do well to give Sir John Eliot Gardiner's an eventual try. Sir Charles is one of only a few conductors I have heard who seem to get the surge in the opening of the Brahms _Third_ right, though regretably his Edinburgh performance seemed more traditional in tempo. And those _WONDERFULLY_-infectious Telarc recordings of four of Haydn's last Symphonies! Though there still are some things to like in his Liverpool Beethoven cycle, I go with the later Edinburgh overall. I also like his OAE Schubert, and, of Delius, my favourites are his _Sea_ _Drift_ and _Florida_ _Suite_.

J. V.

p.s. I would also not wish to be without his Brahms _First_ _Serenade_!
The Leonore on his fine _Fidelio_ may seem squally at times, but _WHAT_ a _WONDERFUL_ _Leonore_ _3_!

Laurent said...

David this is a very nice posting and so well put.
Thank you for it.
I cannot say I ever saw him conducting but I certainly appreciated his style.


Will said...

I was very fortunate to have heard him conduct Billy Budd, Makropulos Case and two different seasons of Katya at the MET. He was always one of my favorite conductors since that incredible Royal Fireworks recording in the 50s. The Janacek recordings will always stand as a great memorial to both composer and a very great conductor.

Minnie said...

Very moving tribute. I, too, owe him much: in my early days of exploring opera he was the best possible guide to Mozart and Janacek, among many other musical riches.

david said...

David Damant writes

I like the seats at the Royal Opera House which are in the Stalls Circle and near the stage ( when not occupied by extra musicians)- from there one can see the orchestra and in particular the conductor. Not long ago I saw Sir Charles conducting Don Giovanni - leaping about as though he was in his thirties: and when a piece was coming up which he particularly liked a great smile would appear. What a man! And eveything from Wagner to G&S

Terfel sings that aria with the sexual element clearly involved - not as often happens sexlessly ( No sex in the drawing room please). Reminiscent of the voice of Don Giovanni seducing Zerlina ( "That little house over there is mine")

JVaughan said...

So no Arts-Desk condolence book yet, or is it not going to be at all, hoping you do not mind me asking?

J. V.

David said...

I'm waiting for a few more responses, but could probably put it up today and add those as/if/when they come. There's no sell-by date for this, of course.

JVaughan said...

Are you using the comments submitted here, or do you wish us to submit a custom-made one for that purpose?

David said...

Erm, no, its for musicians who knew him. Plus a couple of Arts Desk writers (ie Ed Seckerson and myself). You'll be able to comment there if you wish, but you've had a pretty good say here, haven't you?

JVaughan said...

Yes indeed, but I thought/think that Lady Mackerras is to see this one over there, and thus thought I could avoid a somewhat-awkward personal note/letter to her by submitting there, though thought of possibly writing during last night. I think I may have explained elsewhere why it would be awkward.

J. V.