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Music Pages

Sir Charles Mackerras remembered

27 July 2010, London, UK

Sir Charles Mackerras
Sir Charles Mackerras(Photo: Felicity Palmer)

Leos Janáček
Leos Janáček

Gavin Plumley is British a musicologist and journalist. He is the editor of a website dedicated to the life and work of Leos Janáček and has broadcast and written widely about the composer.

Opera Now: How significant was Sir Charles Mackerras' contribution to establishing the status of Janáček’s operas within the mainstream repertoire of opera houses worldwide?
Gavin Plumley: Sir Charles's training in post-Second World War Prague gave him an invaluable connection with many of the musicians who had grown up with Janáček's music. Later, in Britain, he was able to advocate the scores to an entirely new audience. Although the more stubborn elements of taste sometimes got in his way, Sir Charles's determination ultimately won through. His highly idiomatic approach, both in performances of Janáček and all other repertoire, allowed us to hear the music in the best light. Combined with the English-language scholarship of John Tyrrell (with whom Mackerras worked on editions of the scores) and the Welsh National Opera/Scottish Opera cycle of the operas in the late 70s/early 80s, his fervent discipleship really was the key to establishing Janáček in the international repertoire.

ON: Sir Charles was a conductor who excelled in performances of symphonic music as well as opera. What qualities as an artist helped him to interpret these different kinds of repertoire so convincingly?
GP: I think it was very simple: Sir Charles never wanted to impress his own aesthetic onto a composer's work. Moreover, he was a bright and analytical man who just brought out the music's nascent qualities. His performances of Der Rosenkavalier, for instance, went back to the piece's roots. What can be a rather lugubrious work was truly a comedy in his hands – it sparkled.

ON: Which of Sir Charles' Janáček opera recordings stands out most for you, and why?
GP: They are all benchmark recordings. I am very fond of the second Supraphon recording of Káťa Kabanová, which balances the more caustic elements of Janáček's sound world with the underlying Romanticism in the score. But the thrillingly paced Jenůfa with the Vienna Philharmonic is unbeatable.

ON: Apart from his extraordinary legacy of Janáček recordings, how else do you think Sir Charles will be remembered?
GP: At the end of a dress rehearsal for Martinů’s The Greek Passion at Covent Garden, Sir Charles should have been on stage taking his curtain call with the cast. Instead he was at the back of the pit correcting the trombone parts. He clearly had better things to do than just bask in the glory. It's a cliché to say “it was all about the music", but for a man who contributed so much musicologically and in performance, it feels like a good truism.

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