It may come as something of a surprise, especially given the title of this blog, but Donald Runnicles is, in fact, not my favourite conductor. Of course, I'm pretty loose with my affections and have many favourites, but with a gun to my head, the honours would go to Charles Mackerras, who died on July 14th 2010, aged 84.
What follows isn't really an obituary, although it will have aspects in common with one, it's meant more as a personal reflection on the way he touched and shaped my musical life and experiences; an attempt to explain, if I can, why he was my favourite. This isn't a short article either; if you want that, there are plenty of others elsewhere. But for me, none of those seem to capture properly what made him so special.
I first met Charles Mackerras through his recording of Mozart's 40th symphony with the Prague Chamber Orchestra. Actually, more accurately, what I should say is that I first met him through James Bond. A big fan of Bond, one day at the age of fourteen or fifteen I was watching The Living Daylights. Fans will know that near the start Bond attends a classical concert. I asked my father if we had a recording of the piece being played, which turned out to be Mozart's 40th symphony, and indeed we did. At the time I was wrestling with my GCSE maths coursework and had read that Mozart made you cleverer, or something to that effect, so I promptly decamped to my room with some squared paper and the disc. I fell in love with both the 40th and the Jupiter and played them pretty endlessly for a couple of weeks. To what extent it was Mackerras, Mozart, or just the fact that I'm actually quite good at maths, I don't know, but the result was the maximum score and I came to swear by the works. I haven't had an exam for years now, but listening to the finale of the Jupiter beforehand used to be a regular ritual.
But that wasn't quite the beginning of my obsession with Mackerras. Soon afterwards I bought a CD, but instead of Mackerras I chose Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic. Why, you might very well ask? Well, two reasons: first, Bernstein had a rosette in the Penguin Guide to CDs and Mackerras didn't, and since in those days I didn't know a huge amount about classical music, I swore by the book; secondly, my parents had actually known the Mackerrases for several decades and in some illogical part of my brain lurked a rationale along the lines that they didn't know other conductors such as Bernstein or Solti, ergo Mackerras was not up on a par with them.
What set me straight wasn't even my first meeting with Charles, or my first time hearing him in concert (which I think was a performance of Handel's Saul at the 1999 Edinburgh festival which, despite my encyclopaedic memory for concert going, I now only dimly recall). It was Janáček. Since he died, I've read numerous accounts of how Charles provided people with their introduction to Janáček after a revelatory turn in the pit. It wasn't like that for me. Instead it was a trip to Glyndebourne, probably in the summer of 2002, to hear Vec Makropulos. It was the first great opera I ever saw; or, rather, it was the first time I understood the synthesis of music and drama that is opera and was swept away by it. Musically extraordinary, unlike anything I'd heard before, and aided by a clever production, the set slowly sliding across the stage indicating the passage of time and Marty's immunity to it. But Charles was not in the pit.
He enters the story shortly afterwards. He and Judy had come to dinner with my parents, at the time I was at home for the summer between university terms; I remember it being a very jolly occasion. Eventually Glyndeboune came up and Charles revealed that he'd been asked to conduct Makropulos but had turned it down. I was dumbfounded – why would anyone choose not to work in that superb house with that superb opera? However, he explained that the casting of a singer in their 60s (Anja Silja, who actually sang superbly and looked younger than her years) to play the eternally young Marty simply didn't square with the text.
This prompted him to tell the story of his association with Janáček. It's a story that many will be familiar with and which I've heard several times since, often adding more details, but it bears repeating. Having come to the UK after the war, he found himself in a cafe in London, leafing through the score of Dvořák's 7th symphony, when a man came up to him, noted he was studying the music of his country, and invited him to apply for one of the these British Council scholarships to study in Prague. (While no provision existed in the scholarship, he managed to persuade them to allow him to take Judy, who agreed to go under the proviso that he married he; they spent more than 60 happy years together.)
Mackerras had hoped he might be able to study with Václav Talich, the great Czech conductor of his day, but the maestro was rather too busy to bother much with this young conducting student. He did, however, give him a pass to come along to all his rehearsals. Then, in 1948, the communists came to power and Talich found himself out of favour and with an awful lot of free time and thus able to teach Mackerras. Add to this that he received his stipend in the local currency, and since that wouldn't be any use to him when he returned home, he spent any spare money on scores, scores that would become the basis of a vast private library of full orchestral parts. Over the years, whenever he performed in Eastern Europe, he would spend his fee adding to it. The library was key to his success on the podium (since he could turn up to start rehearsals with a full set of parts, marked up the way he wanted).
At this time, he remembered, there was a taboo on Germanic music in Czechoslovakia, for obvious reasons. Instead of Beethoven and Mozart, they played lots of Dvořák and, of course, Janáček. The principal oboist of Czech Philharmonic suggested he hear Káťa Kabanová. Here was something unlike anything he had heard before and so an obsession that would in part define his career was born. He made the effort to ensure he heard as much more as he could before he left. He returned, persuaded Sadler's Wells to stage Káťa, and the rest is history. It wasn't quite that simple, indeed, he recalled that audiences for those initial performances were far from a sell out, yet many of those who attended were bitten by the same bug and came back several times.
As he told the story, I remember being struck by two things. Firstly, here was a man who had had something of a unique role in the championing of a composer and bringing their work to greater notice, and indeed into the operatic mainstream, and that there were surely few about whom similar claims could be made. More than that, though, I was struck by the difference between the way he could have told the story and the way he did. Some would have told it along the lines of “that opera you loved so much the other night, well if it hadn't have been for me you probably wouldn't have seen it.” Instead, it was a story of music he'd found and fallen in love with. It was all about the music.
What's the point of relating this? Well, it left me with the impression that I really had spent the evening in the presence of greatness and it was thereafter that I began to seriously explore his discography, something that I have never stopped doing. Today my collection numbers over 100 of his discs. It's just one of the many marks of his immense talent that I don't think there's a single duff one among them – not a claim I could begin to make about other conductors I adore (I've not found a duff Runnicles disc yet, but his discography is a fraction the size).
This in turn meant he provided my introduction to an awful lot of music: it was under his baton that I first heard most of the remaining Janáček operas, got to know Brahms' symphonies, met both Cosi and The Magic Flute, along many of Mozart's symphonies. He introduced me to Suk, Voříšek, Kodály, Smetana, Martinů and many more besides.
The conversion to Brahms was one of the more significant ones that stands out in my memory. It was not so much with his fine Scottish Chamber Orchestra recordings, but rather with the live accounts he gave with them at the 2003 Edinburgh festival. It is an abiding regret of mine that, not living in Edinburgh at the time, I arrived the day after the second concert, only to be informed by the rest of my family how extraordinary they were. I caught the Radio 3 broadcasts though, and they were electric. There was a passion and excitement that was revelatory. A few years later I heard him play the 4th with the Philharmonia in Basingstoke – for me it remains unequalled and no other live account ever seems quite to measure up in terms of sheer drama and visceral excitement. Indeed, it took a little while longer for the symphonies to resonate with me in other hands generally.
He didn't just introduce me to new things though. In some ways, an even greater talent was his ability to take something so familiar, something that you knew backwards, and make it seem fresh, surprising and new. Perhaps the greatest examples of this gift are to be found in his recordings of the Beethoven symphonies. In the early 90s he played them all with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, the first set to use Jonathan Del Mar's new editions. The set quickly became my favourite – no other touched it for excitement and no matter how many times I listen it can still surprise me. This led to what remains one of the greatest and most treasured experiences of my life. During most Edinburgh festivals, we had lunch, dinner or a drink with the Mackerrases. One highlight was always asking Charles if he would let slip what he had planned for next year. Now, given the way I felt about his Beethoven, had you asked me what my fantasy programming was, the answer would have been simple: Mackerras doing all nine of Beethoven's symphonies, ideally with the SCO. However, at the time he was just about to turn 80 and it seemed that such a concert marathon was an unlikely prospect. I hadn't reckoned on Brian McMaster and his similarly high regard for Mackerras's Beethoven because, on 17th August 2005 when we asked the question, we got the news of the legendary cycle that would follow in 2006.
I know what the date was because one of my most cherished possessions is the booklet from that RLPO set which I'd taken along to lunch to ask him to sign. When I asked him I explained it was probably my favourite of the twelve or so that I then owned. He seemed genuinely astonished, turning to Judy to ask her if she'd heard what I had said.
Those concerts in 2006 were nothing short of extraordinary. They sat on their own in a concert each, spread over the three weeks. Tickets were priced at £10 per symphony, throughout the Usher Hall, but even in the smaller works one never felt short-changed. What's more, the setup gave you the opportunity to fully appreciate works like the 8th or the 1st which wouldn't normally be the headline. Doubtless this also helped ease the workload for Mackerras. Indeed, privately he had suggested that he might not do all nine, instead only the big odd numbered ones. Given what he could accomplish with what are often regarded as the lesser works, this would have been a tremendous shame. And yet, I had a suspicion he would not be able to resist. In the end, the order was modified to make it less tiring, and, a few months from his 81st birthday, he conducted the whole cycle.
Several things stand out from those concerts. There was the Pastoral, probably my least favourite of the symphonies, but where, in the third movement, he drew the most extraordinary wind playing, of which I've never heard the equal; then in the thunder storm he found rain, thunder and lightening as vividly as you can imagine. In 2003 I had heard Daniel Harding play the 7th at Aldeburgh in his penultimate concert in charge of the Bremen Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie; the finale was so quick and thrilling that I never imagined I'd hear a reading that out did it in these respects. But in 2006 the octogenarian managed it, striding off the stage at the end with an energy that many half his age wouldn't possess. Frequently the excitement was such it had me on the edge of my seat, my mouth dry. There was the wit he brought to the 1st and the danger he brought to the 8th. It helped that for all bar the 9th he was working the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, with whom he enjoyed a special relationship of the best kind. At times it seemed he was conducting a string quartet, so tight was their playing, at others, so in sync were they, that he could use just his fingertips. I have only one regret – that the BBC didn't send competent engineers to tape it. The recordings, subsequently issued on Hyperion, are a pale shadow of the concerts – the sound dry and harsh and the detail lacking. That exquisite wind playing, one of the concerts' hallmarks, cannot always be heard clearly.
And yet, if Mackerras was special in the concert hall, he was arguably most at home in opera house. That key early appointment at Sadler's Wells was a sign of things to come. It isn't universal, but many of the best conductors have spent a lot of time in the pit, I'm sure because there is so much more to control. I'm sure this experience helped give him his sense of drama that pervades so much of his music.
I first got the chance to hear him in the pit comparatively late. It was his return to ENO and, fittingly full circle for me, he was conducting Janáček's Vec Makropulos. It was, and remains, one of the most magnificent evenings I have ever spent in the opera house, despite a production that was, to put it mildly, flawed (Mackerras thought so too – the way the document stuck to Marty's hand at the end, as though it were fly paper, flouted the text). Mackerras drew playing from the orchestra of a standard to rival any you will ever hear, but it wasn't that that made the evening great. Nor was it the fine singing of the likes of Cheryl Baker, John Graham-Hall and Graham Clark. What really made it extraordinary was the drama he brought out in the music. In the final act he underscored feelings of alternately sympathy and revulsion for Marty, such that it made me feel like he'd hooked up two opposing tug of war teams to my heartstrings.
The recording is available on Chandos's Opera in English series, of which he was a stalwart, responsible for a significant chunk of them and without doubt their top regular conductor. He wasn't snobbish about performing opera in English as some are. Sometimes people on internet forums babble about how it isn't what the composer wanted and shouldn't be done, but if it was good enough for this authority on Mozart, Janáček and many more, then it is for me. He spoke with particular pride of having won a Grammy for The Bartered Bride, the first time such a distinction had gone to an opera recorded in a language other than its original. For me, fine though it is, it isn't among his best, but such is the strange nature of awards. Some of his others were. Indeed, his English recording of The Magic Flute for me surpasses his earlier account with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in German. Of course, it helped that he had Simon Keenlyside on the cast; Elizabeth Vidal's wonderfully rich Queen of the Night helped too. But what makes it great is the sheer drama that pervades it – the pa,pa,pas of Papageno and Papagena are almost filthy.
Towards the end he lost patience with silliness in productions and refused to conduct anything that wasn't a revival. One wonders when opera houses are going to start paying a little more heed to this. I once asked him about the giant swinging thing, somehow meant to signify the Commendatore in Zambello's Don Giovanni, which he revived at the Royal Opera House in 2008 – he seemed to have no more idea than I did exactly how it did so.
Most conductors of his stature wouldn't touch Gilbert and Sullivan, yet he did so repeatedly, such as at the fabulous semi-staged Proms performance of HMS Pinafore in 2005 with the BBC Concert Orchestra. It's a pity more do not. The experience had given him an ear for Gilbert's tongue-twisting lyrics and perhaps this is what helped to ensure he got generally higher standards than most in terms of diction. He had a reputation for demanding high standards, and yet again and again people spoke of him with affection – at the start of this year he pulled out of a recording of a Strauss opera, in English, and cellist Su-a Lee's resulting blog post seems tinged with sadness.
Of course, it was only in the last years of his life that Mackerras gained the absolute recognition he deserved. Early in his career he had a reputation for throwing himself at everything that became available, and some looked down on this. In the 90s this hyperactivity to some extent caught up with him, and his left arm partly gave out. For some while, even with treatment, he was unable to raise it above his shoulder. Yet it didn't seem to dent his abilities on the podium and by the time he was giving his Beethoven cycle any problems were unnoticeable again.
However, it was his very diversity that makes him unique. Name another conductor who can be regarded as an authority on both Mozart and Gilbert and Sullivan, on both Handel and Janacek, on both Beethoven and Dvořák. I could go on and on: you name it, he probably did it, and not only that, did it very well. It seems remarkable that he was 78 before the Berlin Philharmonic invited him to conduct them. Of course, immediately after the concert they realised what they'd been missing and invited him straight back. He was due to conduct them again this autumn.
His authority put him in demand amongst his colleagues. Other conductors would regularly seek him out for “driving lessons”, as he called them, on Janáček. And not just conductors: he once described a string quartet approaching him despite, he said, him not really knowing the works very well. Though, I have a feeling that for him that just meant he hadn't helped edit the critical edition of the score (as he had with some of the operas) and wasn't able to copy them out from memory (as, if memory serves, he once did with one of the Mozart operas while still in Australia). And it wasn't just Janáček: in a Gramophone interview about his Brahms recordings, John Eliot Gardner mentions consulting Mackerras.
In the last decade, the honours came thick and fast: Companion of Honour in 2003, limited to just 65 people, not just musicians, and Honorary President of the Edinburgh International Festival in 2008, an event he appeared at more times than anyone else. It was presented after a programme of Dvořák and Mozart, including the 24th concerto with Brendel and my old friend the 40th symphony. After Jonathan Mills had reeled off an almost endless list of Charles's accomplishments there, I remember a horrible worry that we were going to be told this would be his final appearance. Thankfully he announced the title and we gave a well earned standing ovation to a man who had given Edinburgh so much. In the end though, illness forced him to cancel the following year and it proved to be his last appearance at the festival and his last concert in the Usher Hall after all. In 2005 he was awarded both the Royal Philharmonic Society Gold Medal and the Queen's Medal for Music, of which he was the inaugural recipient. When presented with this last, at the HMS Pinafore Prom, shortly before playing Pineapple Poll with the BBC Concert Orchestra, he remarked it was fitting this was before his only bit of composition, though he had had quite a bit of help from Sir Arthur Sullivan.
Like anyone else who'd had a successful career there was a lot of luck, both in the encounter that brought him to Prague but also behind those legendary recordings of the Janáček operas that have been mentioned in almost every obituary. Mackerras was not the original choice of Decca to conduct them. First they went to Solti who was, after all, their biggest conductor at the time. Solti declared he had no interest in the project but told them they should look up Mackerras. The rest, as they say, is history. If Solti had said yes perhaps Gramophone's record of the year list would have had different entries in 1977 and 1980. Incidentally, at three wins, nobody has won it more than Mackerras.
I remember him saying once, at a talk/interview he did in a lecture theatre at the National Gallery during the 2005 Edinburgh festival, that some conductors were dictatorial, others friendly; some beat clearly, others didn't; some said nothing, others talked a lot; some rehearsed endlessly, others flew in at the last minute. His point was this: that what makes a good conductor is very difficult to pin down since there are some from each of those groups who are great.
What made him so great is difficult to explain, and doubtless in some ways very personal. That's certainly true of tempi. Somehow, and I have no idea why, his tempi always just feel right to me. I listen and feel that yes, of course, this is exactly the tempo this should be taken at, of course. Perhaps his arms and my ears are just on the same wavelength. Of course, I often enjoy radically different performances, but there's something about Mackerras that just speaks to me. Then there are the pauses. Miles Davis, another major influence on my musical life, once said “Don't play what's there, play what's not there.” Whether Mackerras ever heard this I cannot say, but he certainly did it. He understood what pauses could accomplish, he could hold one long enough to make the tension almost unbearable, but not too long that the energy was lost.
He knew when to stop and smell the roses. I once asked him why he conducted from the score and he explained with the example that he'd recently been leafing through the score of a Dvořák symphony, works he knew as well as anyone on the planet, and that something had struck him in a way he'd never noticed before. If he conducted from memory such evolution would be lost. And he never stopped evolving. Never did he fall into a routine of how to play a piece. His most recent accounts of Mozart and Beethoven symphonies were not simply a retreading of work he had already done, they were fresh and new and revelatory. It felt like he still had more left to say. Interestingly, while many conductors slow down with age, he tended to speed up, at least until ill health really started to catch up with him in the last few years.
He was an early exponent of period or historically informed performance, both in terms of ornamentation in Mozart arias but also in his researches on Handel. This led to the extraordinary recording, available on Testament, of the original version of the Firework Music, with its 24 oboes. Of course, assembling such a multitude of professional wind players was no mean feat, and the only way to do it was to start at 11pm, some players turning up from Covent Garden in their white tie, and recording until 2am. It is the only time you will find horn legends Barry Tuckwell and Alan Civil playing together; the ensemble's sole female player, oboist Evelyn Rothwell, was better known as Lady Barbirolli. And yet he wasn't a slave to the school that tries to determine exactly what the composer wanted, an impossible task anyway, and do that and no more: he twice recorded Mozart's arrangement of the Messiah, both in English and German; his liner note to that RLPO recording of Beethoven's 9th symphony gives interesting insight into the pinches of salt that should be taken with the metronome markings.
He was a sensitive accompanist, always ensuring singers and soloists were well heard, this extended to ensuring his orchestra was well balanced. Indeed, very occasionally this hurt other things, such as during the 2008 Edinburgh Festival when, in Brendel's final concerto appearance there, he had to hold the SCO back that bit too much to ensure the piano was properly audible.
I could go on indefinitely trying to nail down what made him great, but in some ways such things are indefinable. Ultimately, he had the ability to transport the listener somewhere else and to make magic. Suffice to say that so great were his performances that not an opportunity was to be missed. I make regularly visits to London and often they're built around Charles. Indeed, on the day he died, before the news had broken, I was just thinking I'd yet to book my ticket to hear him do Berlioz's glorious Symphonie Fantastique with the Philharmonia. Now I never will.
He was Australian, of course, not British; when they needed someone to conduct the opening concert at the Sydney Opera House, he got the call. Yet in some ways he felt British. Certainly this country, which he made his home for over six decades, adopted him and, musically speaking, it is here that his death will be most keenly felt. He enjoyed long associations the Royal Opera House, the Edinburgh festival, the Philharmonia, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the Proms (he was the first non-Brit to conduct the last night), amongst many others and his passing leaves real holes in the schedules of all of them.
I last heard him when he conducted Cosi fan tutti at Glyndebourne with the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment, just over a month before he died. It was a sparkling evening, one of the most perfectly balanced productions it's been my pleasure to see and a fitting note to have ended on.
I have many enduring memories of Charles on the podium, but somehow the one that seems most appropriate in finishing this piece comes from a concert performance of Haydn's Creation which he gave with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in 2006. The Usher Hall was going through a period of repeated fire alarms but the performance escaped until midway through the third part. Then the sirens went off. Mackerras carried on beating, the orchestra continued to play sublimely, albeit the sound now somewhat tarnished by the sirens. A few people nervously began to make their way towards the doors but most of us, fixed on the band playing on, remained locked in our seats. After a few more moments the ushers threw open the doors and a few more people began to leave. Charles looked round over his shoulder, as if trying to gage whether this really did mean he had to stop now. The ushers seemed resolute, and finally, Charles laid down baton and the music died away.
Of course, on that day we just had to go and stand outside for half an hour, after which they picked back up without missing a beat. Last week, the music stopped for the final time. We're lucky to have had him for so long, but the way he continued to make music, well into his 80s, still an electricity and a drama coming from the pit, podium or hi-fi, the way he played a thrillingly energetic Leonora III overture between the scenes in act two of Fidelio at an 80th birthday concert, the way he continued to book up his schedule chock full, almost made you think he would go on forever.
He leaves a vast, in some ways unequalled discography filled with many more gems than I could have mentioned in this article, but still the world is a quieter place without him, and I cannot shake the feeling that it leaves a gaping hole in my musical life. Indeed, I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that he changed my life. I will miss Charles terribly, not least for the cry of “I Pollardi” that would greet us whenever we waited for him by a stage door.