Sir Charles Mackerras: In from the cold

The British conductor Sir Charles Mackerras single-handedly revived the music of the Czech composer Janacek. Now he is aiming do the same for Martinu. He talks to Lynne Walker about a lifelong love affair
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It's as well that Sir Charles Mackerras likes anniversaries: over the course of a long career, he's experienced a lot of them. As he prepares to conduct Martinu's The Greek Passion at the Royal Opera House, he notes with pleasure that this will mark the 40th anniversary of his first engagement there, conducting Shostakovich's Katerina Izmaylova. Mackerras recalls with some amusement that after he arranged to study the work with Shostakovich, he was incredulous to discover that the score secretly located and lent to him in Moscow was the original version, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (banned by Stalin), and not the bowdlerised version, Katerina Izmaylova. He recounts the incident gleefully - indeed, as we talk, it seems that each anniversary prompts a fascinating anecdote or cherished memory.

It's as well that Sir Charles Mackerras likes anniversaries: over the course of a long career, he's experienced a lot of them. As he prepares to conduct Martinu's The Greek Passion at the Royal Opera House, he notes with pleasure that this will mark the 40th anniversary of his first engagement there, conducting Shostakovich's Katerina Izmaylova. Mackerras recalls with some amusement that after he arranged to study the work with Shostakovich, he was incredulous to discover that the score secretly located and lent to him in Moscow was the original version, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (banned by Stalin), and not the bowdlerised version, Katerina Izmaylova. He recounts the incident gleefully - indeed, as we talk, it seems that each anniversary prompts a fascinating anecdote or cherished memory.

Next year will be the 50th anniversary of his first appearance with the Royal Ballet (formerly Sadler's Wells Ballet), when he conducted his own version of The Lady and the Fool, based on music by Verdi and choreographed by John Cranko. It was Cranko who later caused the famous cold shoulder to be turned on Mackerras by Benjamin Britten. At the 1958 Aldeburgh Festival, Mackerras was booked to conduct not only the premiere of Noye's Fludde but also Britten's The Rape of Lucretia and Poulenc's ribald Les Mamelles de Tirésias. He blundered, though, when he remarked on how Noye's Fludde called for "more boys than any Britten work to date - masses of boys!"

This incautious observation was passed on to Cranko, who told Britten, and there was a chilly showdown. "I was white with nerves," recalls Mackerras. He was allowed to remain for the scheduled performances, although it was some time before he was invited back. But Britten must have recognised that Mackerras's absence was his and Aldeburgh's loss, and though "we had never been bosom pals," Mackerras says, "we became perfectly good friends again."

Mackerras, born in New York to Australian parents and brought up in Australia, made the extraordinary leap from principal oboist in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra to become one of the world's leading exponents of Czech music. "After the Second World War, I came to Europe with the intention of furthering my interest in conducting and picked up some work on a Sadler's Wells tour," he explains.

Soon he'd met his future wife, a clarinettist at Sadler's Wells, and chanced upon a Czech expat who advised him that the British Council was offering study scholarships to Czechoslovakia. Mackerras applied, and in 1947 he and his wife arrived in Prague, where he studied at the Academy and, crucially, attended the rehearsals of the legendary Vaclav Talich.

That year was a turning point. He became fluent in Czech and developed a passion for the country's music, in particular that of Janacek, whom Mackerras raised from obscurity to prominence in many of the world's opera houses and concert halls. He conducted the British premieres of Janacek's Katya Kabanova and The Makropoulos Affair, and has lost count of the times he's conducted Jenufa.

Could Martinu achieve the same popularity? "Martinu is unusual in that, although he was Moravian, his style is really more French. He spent years in Paris, so it helps to think of Roussel, Poulenc or Milhaud rather than Janacek. There's no doubt, however, that Martinu had a formidable compositional technique, though he was thrown out of the Prague Conservatory for 'incorrigible behaviour'," Mackerras says.

Mackerras points out that The Greek Passion, composed to an English libretto based on a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis (the author of Zorba the Greek), is not about passion in the operatic sense. "It may not be his greatest work, but in its subject matter - the cruel treatment of dispossessed refugees by a group of Greek villagers acting out the Passion story - it unfortunately couldn't be more relevant today. It is actually very moving, and is totally accessible."

The establishment of the Communist regime brought Mackerras's spell in Czechoslovakia to an abrupt end. He returned to Britain, but he continued to conduct behind the Iron Curtain, working in East Germany and finding ingenious ways to use the vast sums of East German marks he accumulated. "I bought new sets of tails, and cameras for my wife who is interested in photography, and the rest I spent on full orchestral parts. I bought the four principal Mozart operas, including two sets of string parts for Don Giovanni and all 41 of his symphonies - all of which I have recorded, by the way. I got most of Haydn's 101 symphonies and all Beethoven's, as well as symphonies by Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius and Shostakovich."

Those parts are a key part of his work. In his quest to draw as authentic a sound as possible from modern orchestras, he has experimented with bowings, explored wind and brass techniques and investigated ornamentation until he's satisfied that his performances are as truthful as possible to the composer's intentions. He always takes his own marked-up parts when conducting Mozart, Beethoven or Handel.

He snorts slightly when I refer to "the Mackerras sound" - the transparent string tone, his vital attention to colour and detail and most of all his unerring sense of rhythm. His latest recording, of Bartok and Kodaly with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra - an ensemble he cites as providing one of his most fruitful and responsive partnerships - proves it to my ear.

"Look," he explains, a trifle impatiently, "all conductors have their own sound. It is true that conductors make a specific sound - though musicians might dispute that, asserting that they don't even watch the conductor. It's a mysterious thing, but I do believe that it's the emanations of individual conductors that make the difference, their presence - if it's sufficiently strong - and their personal approach."

Prague was Mozart's favourite city, and Mackerras quickly became a notable interpreter of his music. He has been prominent in reviving Handel in his own editions, has a reputation as an instinctive Verdian, and is equally compelling in repertoire ranging from Elgar and Mahler to Weber and Donizetti. The tremendous enthusiasm which which he's greeted as he walks briskly on to the podium is an indication of the esteem in which he's held. Businesslike, untouched by celebrity status, he's the last person who would assume the haughty demeanour of some of his younger colleagues.

Then there are his reconstructions, notably of Sullivan's lost Cello Concerto, which he put together from the barest details after a fire at the publisher Chappell destroyed the full score and all but a few sketchy parts. "It's not a great work, but it has a certain charm, with a beautiful slow second movement reminiscent of Frederick or Fairfax in the Savoy operas, and a last movement that bounds along like a patter song - 'Modern major general' or 'Matter, matter, matter'," he says.

Genial and benign, but sharp and sprightly as a man of far less advanced age, he's in great demand in this anniversary year of Dvorak (who died in 1904) and Janacek (born in 1854), appearing with the Vienna Philharmonic and the Berlin Philharmonic, among other leading orchestras. This year, he notches up another anniversary, his 25th conducting the Czech Philharmonic, with which he has recorded a wealth of Czech music on the Supraphon label. He's long since celebrated his 50th Edinburgh Festival (2002) and his half-century with Welsh National Opera (2000).

For someone so brilliant in so many areas, he's remarkably modest about his achievements and reluctant to be drawn on the highlights of his career. "My contribution to the early-music movement," he says, when pinned down, "was actually getting on and doing it, not leaving it to eccentric old academics and obscure bands."

He found it illuminating working with the period instruments of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, giving what may have been the first "authentic" performance of Schubert's Ninth Symphony. But it's with the English Chamber Orchestra, the SCO (with which he's recently recorded a clutch of Mozart piano concertos with Alfred Brendel), and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera that he's had the most adventures, he concedes.

He's conducted 26 operas for the Royal Opera, ranging from Tristan und Isolde to The Yeomen of the Guard, and is booked to conduct a couple of operas at Covent Garden in 2007. Beyond that he's not committing himself but, as he approaches his 80th year in November, he's clearly enjoying his Indian summer. None of his family - he has two daughters and several grandchildren - has become a professional musician, "although," he says, "they're all very knowledgeable, and my granddaughter is bringing some of her student friends who've never seen an opera before to The Greek Passion."

'The Greek Passion', Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020-7304 4000; www.royalopera.org) on 15, 19, 21, 23 and 25 September; live broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 25 September. 'Bartok and Kodaly', with Mackerras conducting the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, is out now on Linn

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