Viewpoint: Completely Original

by F. Paul Driscoll.

Viewpoint Harnoncourt sm 516
Nikolaus Harnoncourt, 1929–2016
© Susech Bayat/ArenaPAL

NIKOLAUS HARNONCOURT, who died on March 5, was both an aristocrat and a revolutionary. A musician and scholar whose probing, imaginative work as a conductor changed the way late-twentieth-century audiences listened to Mozart, Haydn, Purcell, Beethoven and Bach, Harnoncourt was a man of unfailing gentility and modesty who was a direct descendent of the Hapsburg Emperor Leopold II. Born in Berlin and raised and educated in Austria, Harnoncourt was a cellist with the Vienna Symphony when he founded the period-instrument ensemble Concentus Musicus Wien in 1953; he remained its artistic director until his retirement from the stage, for reasons of ill health, in December 2015. 

The group did not offer an official debut concert for almost the first four years of its life, preferring to spend its time in research—all of Harnoncourt’s opinions on tempo, dynamics and phrasing were scrupulously considered—and in rehearsal. The CMW’s standard-setting recordings of Baroque repertoire began in 1962, and the group’s catalogue with Harnoncourt grew to include masterful readings of Bach—notably all of J. S Bach’s cantatas, issued between 1971 and 1990, in collaboration with conductor Gustav Leonhardt—as well as Mozart, Haydn and Monteverdi. Harnoncourt also had a particularly close relationship with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, which he paced in a vivid, best-selling set of Beethoven’s symphonies for Teldec.

Harnoncourt’s opera interpretations in Zurich, Salzburg and elsewhere, many of them now available on CD and DVD, were unfailingly thoughtful, frequently exhilarating and occasionally maddening, but the conductor’s integrity was manifest in every note. Nothing was played for effect or flash: Harnoncourt was incapable of artistic dishonesty. Each Harnoncourt performance—whether it was a transformative look at Aida or a vigorous introduction to Schubert’s Alfonso und Estrella—represented an original musical idea, delivered with zeal, liberality and joy. spacer 

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