Czech Mate – Sir Charles Mackerras

Written by: Colin Anderson

Sir Charles Mackerras talks about Dvořák and Martinů’s The Greek Passion

Sir Charles Mackerras greets me most affably. Although he conducts a wide repertoire, he’s especially associated with Czech music: so we’re talking Dvořák at the Proms and Martinů’s The Greek Passion at Covent Garden. “I admired Dvořák’s music long before I went to Prague. I wanted to study on the continent and just after the war German centres of music were destroyed. Prague had not been destroyed, although it was impoverished. So a quasi-normal life began much sooner in Prague than in other great artistic cities.”

Dvořák is so underrated? “Dvořák really is one of most highly varied composers of all: symphonies, tone poems, chamber music, songs, religious music and operas. A couple of the comic operas are marvellous and the fifth symphony is such a beautiful pastoral piece. Dvořák is the most many-sided of the successful composers, except Mozart.” At the Proms on the 8th, Dvořák’s birthday (he’ll be 163!), Sir Charles conducts the Czech Philharmonic in the New World Symphony, written in New York. How to keep this oft-played music fresh? “One has to work hard to produce something new with the New World Symphony. But I did it recently in Vienna with the Czech Philharmonic and hardly rehearsed it and it just came alive in the performance.”

The Czech Phil’s tradition “has changed less; it’s less what you might call a modern orchestra. It’s very distinctive, especially the double basses and the mellow sound of the brass. All the players come from the same culture. If you look at old films you find that the present section leaders were playing further back when they were kids. They play the New World from copies used when Talich was the conductor – including some of the mistakes. I was amazed that they still use the old edition – until I came along a few weeks ago! They were perfectly friendly about changing things. The New World’s themes are different to any other Dvořák work because he and American composers of the time were exercised with what was American in music. Dvorak was regarded as bringing European music to America, but he confounded them by writing this symphony with themes based on Red Indian and slave tunes.” Sir Charles has just made a splendid recording of Dvořák’s superb Symphony No.6 for Supraphon.

The composer Bohuslav Martinů played violin in the Czech Phil. His final opera The Greek Passion returns to the Royal Opera on the 15th under Sir Charles’s baton. “Kubelik, then music director, asked Martinu to compose it. The Board asked why this foreigner was composing an opera when there were so many British composers. Martinů was disappointed and tried to persuade Karajan and failed. His great friend Paul Sacher agreed to do it. Martinů had revised the opera during this course. It was originally in English so we thought it would be justice to do the version that should have originally been done at Covent Garden.”

Sir Charles explains that The Greek Passion is “a play within a play, the Passion of Christ set when Greece was completely under the grip of Turkey. The village priest is choosing people for the Passion play, the villagers being matched to characters in the Passion. These plans are ruined when refugees from another village ransacked by the Turks show up. The priest looks for pretexts to not take these helpless people. It’s a great, epic work and of course it’s a very relevant story. It’s a wonderful production.”

Back to the Dvořák Prom, which begins with the Scherzo capriccioso written shortly after Dvořák’s mother’s death. Despite its name “it’s not a laugh a minute; it’s quite dark and ruminative.” Taking centre-spot is Sarah Chang in the carefree and vibrant Violin Concerto. Keep your ears peeled in the New World – Sir Charles hums a ditty from the finale: “that’s supposed to be Yankee Doodle!”

  • Czech Philharmonic – Proms, 8 September
  • The Greek Passion – Royal Opera from 15 September
  • BBC Proms 2004
  • Royal Opera
  • Supraphon
  • The above article was published in “What’s On in London” on 1 September and is reproduced here with permission

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