Charles Mackerras on CD: five of the best recordings

At home in everything from Handel to Gilbert & Sullivan, Mackerras was a man of exceptionally wide-ranging musical sympathies. Here are my favourite discs – what are yours?

Few great conductors of the last 50 years had wider musical sympathies than Charles Mackerras. His repertoire spanned more than three centuries, from Bach and Handel to Benjamin Britten. This selection of a few of his recordings is intended to show something of that exceptional range. It's by no means a comprehensive list of his great discs – I could easily have come up with three times as many if I'd included just his finest Mozart, Dvorak and Janacek performances, for instance – but I hope it gives some sense of what a remarkable musician Mackerras was.

Janacek: The Cunning Little Vixen (Decca, two CDs)

Ever since he studied in Prague with the great Vaclav Talich in 1947, Czech music was central to Mackerras's musical life. That Janacek's operas are now fully established in the repertoire is largely down to his tireless work on their behalf, both in the opera house and in the peerless series of recordings he made for Decca in the 1980s. All are outstanding, but the Vixen – with Lucia Popp in the title role, a fine supporting cast of Czech singers and the Vienna Philharmonic – is particularly special.

Dvorak: Symphonic Poems (Supraphon)

Support for Czech music didn't stop with Janacek. In the concert hall and on disc, Mackerras's Dvorak was equally fine, and one of the last studio discs he made was this collection of four of the symphonic poems, The Water Goblin, The Noon Witch, The Golden Spinning Wheel and The Wild Dove. The Czech Philharmonic play their heart out for a conductor who they clearly respected hugely.

Mozart: Symphonies 38–41 (Linn, two CDs)

Towards the end of his career, Mackerras struck up a special relationship with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, with whom he made a number of outstanding Mozart recordings. These superb accounts of the last four symphonies from 2007 show just how effective and thrillingly dynamic his approach was, with its hybrid of traditional and period performance (natural horns and trumpets, modern woodwind and strings).

Handel: Julius Caesar (Chandos, three CDs)

A lifelong supporter of opera in English, Mackerras conducted regularly at ENO and its predecessor, Sadler's Wells Opera, for more than 60 years. Recorded at the Coliseum in 1984, this performance of Handel, with Janet Baker in the title role and a superb supporting cast (Valerie Masterson, James Bowman, John Tomlinson, Della Jones), may seem slightly old-fashioned now, but it has a wonderful sense of theatrical style and dramatic momentum.

Sullivan: The Pirates of Penzance (Telarc, two CDs)

G&S was one of Mackerras's more surprising enthusiasms. He conducted the operettas for stage performances for the D'Oyly Carte company, and early in his career fashioned a very successful ballet, Pineapple Poll, from Sullivan's music. Later he recorded all the major stage works with Welsh National Opera for Telarc. Pirates, with John Mark Ainsley and Rebbecca Evans leading the cast, is one of the best: fleet, witty and bursting with life.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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