Sir Charles Mackerras, who has died aged 84, was a nice man and near-neighbour. We would exchange a sunny wave and an occasional chat on morning walks along Hamilton Terrace.
Never an assertive personality, Charlie was often underrated by orchestral musicians and had a wretched time as chief conductor of English National Opera in the 1970s. But the musical results spoke for themselves.
His achievements, in my view, are twofold. He was the first, after Neville Marriner, to seek fusion between period-instrument practice and modern orchestras, achieving wonderfully transparent Mozart and Beethoven performances, especially with his last ensemble, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. He had been due to work with them this summer at the Edinburgh Festival (he was also down to conduct a Viennese Night at the BBC Proms the week after next and, never a narrow mind, he was irrationally fond of Gilbert and Sullivan.)
His greatest breathrough, though, was to introduce Janacek to the English-speaking world. A fluent Czech-speaker after studies in Prague with Vaclav Talich in 1947, he joined the Sadlers Wells Opera in London and, in 1951, conducted the first Katya Kabanova outside continental Europe. It paved the way for Rafael Kubelik to conduct Jenufa at Covent Garden and for Mackerras himself to record the complete Janacek operas with a stellar cast on Decca.
It took Katya another 40 years to reach the Met but by then most of Janacek was being staged the world over and Charlie’s contribution was near-forgotten. It could be said that he did more for Janacek than anyone other than Max Brod, his original German translator.
To bring a great composer back to life is more than most conductors can ever hope to do. Charles Mackerras did that, and we should be eternally grateful for his courage and persistence. He will be eulogised as Australia’s greatest conductor (which he was) but the greatness of Mackerras was the ease with which he overcame the barriers between nations, languages and periods in the history of music. He was truly a citizen of the world.
Charles Mackerras, born Shenectady, New York, 17 November 1925; died London, 14 July 2010