posted by James Reel
Sir Charles Mackerras succumbed to cancer last night at age 84. Not that he was unappreciated or unnoticed, but he was perhaps the greatest underrated conductor of our time. Mackerras’ performances did not seethe with individuality under the fire of his own forceful personality, but they did seethe with the personality of the particular composer at hand. As I wrote some years ago, when one listened to a Mackerras recording, one didn’t sit back and sigh, “Ah, Mackerras.” One sighed “Ah, Mozart” or “Ah, Janácek.” He had a knack for getting to the essence of whatever score he was conducting, and conveying it with both conviction and flair (but never self-aggrandizing flair).
In the 1940s, he studied in Prague with the great Czech conductor Vaclav Talich, and while he was there he mastered the rather difficult Czech language. This certainly helped him master the idiom of Janácek, whose music is tied to Czech speech inflections, but it also seems to have given Mackerras special insight into the idiomatic inflection of all kinds of other music—those telling little bits of emphasis and holding back, the balance of voices, the particular ebb and flow and phrasing peculiar to the works of each great composer. Yes, he was the leading Janácek conductor of our time, but he also produced a superb Mozart symphony cycle for Telarc. His recording of Sheherazade for that label is an act of dynamic storytelling that can stand alongside the classic version by Fritz Reiner. His Brahms symphony cycle, especially the first three symphonies, is heartfelt, dramatic and expressive without ever becoming self-indulgent.