Nikolaus Harnoncourt obituary

One of the most influential conductors of the 20th century, he brought a historical perspective to his work

Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who has died aged 86, was one of the most innovative and influential conductors of the second half of the 20th century, bringing the scholarship and sensibility of historical performance to the mainstream repertoire with sometimes controversial, but always illuminating results.

With the Concentus Musicus of Vienna, an ensemble he formed in the early 1950s, he recorded, in collaboration with his friend Gustav Leonhardt, the complete sacred cantatas of JS Bach and continued to work with the group in later years. But he also began to operate with modern instrumental ensembles, notably the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam and, later, the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics, in classical and Romantic repertoire. Performances of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and Dvořák, among others, were distinguished by their bracingly astringent qualities. While some found such readings mannered and idiosyncratic, others relished their freshness and vigour. He made more than 500 recordings.

Born in Berlin into a noble family and brought up in Graz, Austria, Harnoncourt was descended from various Holy Roman emperors and other European royalty. His father, Eberhard de la Fontaine Graf d’Harnoncourt-Unverzagt, was an engineer and civil servant, and his mother, Ladislaja Gräfin von Meran, Freiin von Brandhoven, was the granddaughter of the Habsburg Archduke John (1782-1859). Harnoncourt was a cello pupil of Paul Grümmer and of Emanuel Brabec at the Vienna Music Academy. He also played the viola da gamba.

Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting Mozart’s Symphony No 39 in E flat

In 1952 he joined the Vienna Symphony Orchestra as a cellist, and although he remained with the orchestra until 1969, he reacted strongly against both the military precision of conductors such as George Szell and the undifferentiated approach to early music then prevalent. Handel was played much like Brahms, he later said, and the result was “an unsorted blend of geniality, 19th-century tradition and ignorance”.

Within a year of joining the orchestra he formed a group of like-minded players, among them the violinist Alice Hoffelner, who led the ensemble and whom he married in 1953, to explore the use of original instruments and historically informed techniques in baroque music.

The Concentus Musicus of Vienna gave no concerts for the first five years, but following a series of 12 public concerts in Vienna, record companies such as Telefunken, Vanguard and Deutsche Grammophon began to take notice. The first recording, in 1962, was of Purcell’s Fantasias for viols, after which came well-received recordings of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos and Orchestral Suites (directed by Harnoncourt from the principal cello desk) and then the major choral works of Bach – the St Matthew and St John Passions, Christmas Oratorio and B Minor Mass.

Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting JS Bach’s Magnificat in D major

The Bach cantata project with Leonhardt (1971–1990) was a landmark in the recording catalogue, notable for its pioneering historical research – Harnoncourt was publishing books and articles at this period and went on to hold academic chairs in Salzburg at both the university and the Mozarteum, where he was professor of performance practice. It was also exceptional in replacing female voices with those of unbroken trebles, even in the solo movements.

The other notable achievement with the Concentus Musicus was the recording of Monteverdi’s three surviving operas: Orfeo, Il Ritorno d’Ulisse and L’Incoronazione di Poppea. To these recordings, as to the highly acclaimed stage performances he conducted in Zurich (1975-79), he brought an austere but stylish and well-paced approach. Those qualities also characterised also his readings of classical and romantic repertoire which he began to undertake with leading modern-instrument orchestras in the ensuing decades. A set of Beethoven symphonies with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe on modern instruments sold spectacularly well and led to further offers, including a lifetime contract with Teldec, a belated Salzburg debut (1992) and New Year’s Day concerts with the Vienna Philharmonic (2001 and 2003).

The brisk tempi and primitive percussion effects in his 1988 Don Giovanni with the Royal Concertgebouw verged on the abrasive: they did not make for comfortable listening, but were not intended to. The unsentimental, non-reverential Così fan Tutte (1991), also with the Concertgebouw, was equally challenging, even alienating to some. The sharply etched phrasing and vigorous, sometimes explosive, articulation had their roots in Harnoncourt’s historical approach to baroque music, and although the results could be alarming, they were clearly the product of meticulous scholarly research and intellectual inquiry, and contrary to a criticism often voiced, these readings were by no means devoid of sensuality.

Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting part of the finale of Brahms’ Symphony No 1 in C minor

In tackling Brahms too, Harnoncourt returned to the autograph scores and early printed editions bearing Brahms’s corrections, the better to understand performance practice in the composer’s own era. His recordings of the symphonies, overtures and Variations on a Theme by Haydn with the Berlin Philharmonic are characterised by lively phrasing and austere textures that are nevertheless shot through with light and colour. Ever alert to historical continuities, he pointed up traces of Purcell in the Haydn variations, in Gabrieli (in the second movement of the 4th Symphony), and in the minuets that form the basis of the first and third movements of the Symphony No 2.

A production of Aida (Zurich, 1997), subsequently recorded, was not generally considered a success. Casting lighter voices than usual in the principal roles and stressing the importance of Verdi’s pianissimos, Harnoncourt raised worthwhile issues about Verdi’s performance practice, but good intentions were undermined by ponderous tempi and stiff phrasing.

There were ventures into the 20th century too, with Bartók and Berg featuring in his repertoire. In an interview in 2012 for Radio 3’s Music Matters, Harnoncourt revealed not only that he would like to have recorded Berg’s Lulu but that had he had more time left to him he would have relished the challenge of Wagner, including Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, which he would have approached in the spirit of Offenbach-style operetta. The latter was territory he inhabited very successfully, the minimal vibrato, measured tempi and taut rhythms of a Belle Hélène (Zurich, 1997, subsequently recorded) paying generous dividends in capturing the exhilaration of the score.

In 2009 he surprised many with a recording made in Graz in his 80th year of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.

Nikolaus Harnoncourt rehearsing Beethoven’s Symphony No 5 in C minor

Harnoncourt’s long career coincided with radical developments in the performance of music of all eras. During this period, early music became more established and the distinction between historical and mainstream gradually faded. Harnoncourt was at the centre of this transformation. His career also coincided with the demise of the conductor as feared tyrant. To the end of his life he remained fundamentally opposed to the cult of the autocratic conductor – the only man he acknowledged as “maestro” was his hairdresser, he joked. His rehearsal process was collegiate, with musicians as partners.

Appearances on the stage in London in the later years included a serene and moving performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis in 2012. On that evening Harnoncourt was presented with the Royal Philharmonic Society’s gold medal, a fitting tribute to a lifetime devoted to stretching artistic boundaries. He retired officially from the stage on 5 December last year, cancelling future engagements because of declining health. His new Beethoven Symphonies No 4 and 5, recorded live in Vienna with the Concentus Musicus, more than 60 years since its formation, were released to great acclaim last month.

One son, Eberhard, a violin-maker, died in 1990 in a road accident. He is survived by Alice, their sons Philipp and Franz, and daughter, the mezzo-soprano Elisabeth von Magnus.

Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Count Nikolaus de la Fontaine und d’Harnoncourt-Unverzagt), cellist and conductor, born 6 December 1929; died 5 March 2016


Barry Millington

The GuardianTramp

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