Tony Faulkner and Rob Pennock Remember Sir Charles Mackerras

Written by: Tony Faulkner / Rob Pennock

The recording engineer Tony Faulkner, and music enthusiast Rob Pennock, pay a personal tribute to the late Sir Charles Mackerras…

Sir Charles Mackerras. Photograph: Clive Barda

Tony Faulkner writes…

The death yesterday of Sir Charles Mackerras during the morning of 14 July 2010 at the age of 84 will come as very sad news to concert-and opera-goers, record-collectors, to music-lovers in general and also to many, many professional colleagues. It is wonderful that we have so much of his work, personality and musical integrity preserved in the form of recordings, which live on irreplaceably.

Sir Charles will be missed by professional friends and colleagues at least as much as by those who have listened to the fruits of his work. He was born in Schenectady NY in November 1925, moving to Australia two years later. Sir Charles once told me he had studied the oboe at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama alongside Sir George Martin (the producer of most of The Beatles’ recordings) a few weeks his junior, but I have never seen any mention of this in biographies. Charles joined the Sydney Symphony Orchestra first as a casual oboist during World War Two, then becoming principal. He settled in England in 1946. In 1947 he married clarinettist Judy Wilkins and in the same year he won a British Council Scholarship enabling him to study conducting with Vaclav Tálich at the Prague Academy of Music.

Alfred Brendel & Sir Charles Mackerras at the Royal Festival Hall on 12 October 2008

There were many landmarks along the way including lasting relationships with the Czech Philharmonic, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, and latterly the Philharmonia Orchestra. In 1980, he was the first non-Briton to conduct the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Last Night of the Proms.

Sir Charles was an inspiration to many of us for his seemingly inextinguishable energy (he had a full diary including two BBC Proms this year and subsequent dates at The Royal Opera, for “Don Pasquale” and “Hänsel und Gretel”, and with the Philharmonia Orchestra), musical instincts, exploration of repertoire and especially for his humour, all backed up with so much background knowledge and snob-free scholarship. When I was at secondary school two of my first LP purchases were the Pye Handel Music for the Royal Fireworks (1959) and Janáček’s Sinfonietta, and when I came into the recording industry full-time it was to record Sir Charles and the English Chamber Orchestra in London’s Henry Wood Hall.

Many of us have similar stories to tell and I have a shelf with his memorable Schubert, Mozart, Donizetti, Beethoven, Dvořák, Bloch, Tchaikovsky, Gilbert & Sullivan, and Handel recordings. My Desert Island Discs are his Scottish Chamber Orchestra versions of Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ and ‘Great C major’ symphonies and the Welsh National Opera HMS Pinafore. Sir Charles contributed a significant part of my formal music education for which I shall be eternally in his debt.

Our deepest sympathies go to Sir Charles’s surviving family – Lady Judy, daughter Catherine, and his nephew the conductor Alexander Briger.

Sir Charles Mackerras. ©Clive Barda

Rob Pennock writes…

The death of Sir Charles Mackerras has robbed the world of an exacting and demanding great conductor. On a purely personal note, in the early-1970s I saw a Classics for Pleasure LP of Offenbach’s Gaité Parisienne. I didn’t know that it was a reissue of an earlier CSD disc, but I loved the music and it was cheap. What I heard when I got it home completely floored me. The orchestra played like a god, the sound was superb and the conducting combined grace, wit, rhythmic panache and power with wonderful singing lines and deliciously moulded phrasing. About a week later two friends came round and I said I would play them this incredible recording. My mother was a marvellous dancer and she had heard it when I first played it. To my friends’ amazement, as the ‘Can-Can’ sequence commenced she came in through the door, hitched up her skirts and danced. At the end she asked us if we had noticed that she had never once had to adjust the rhythm and speed of her steps and kicks? None of us had of course, but it showed just how right the performance was. Indeed it is that rare thing, a definitive account of a popular masterpiece and it was given by the Philharmonia Orchestra under Charles Mackerras. So, Maestro, thanks for the memories and the music. RIP.

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