Nikolaus Harnoncourt announces retirement

Harnoncourt’s highly stylised contribution to the evolving art of early music interpretation allowed us new-found access to Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Biber etc in terms of a uniquely fresh (and sometimes abrasive) sound-world. Not a calorie in sight, just numerous sonorities that told a very different story to the ones we already knew. NH once said to me (or words to this effect): ‘the idea with period instruments isn’t so much to play music the way it sounded then, as to hear music the way the composer himself heard it when he wrote it.” It was his view that the music sounds better on old instruments, plain and simple. That for Harnoncourt was the essence of authenticity, after years of playing, say, heavy-duty Bach Suites, Brandenburgs and Passions with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra (as an Orchestra cellist). But what about Harnoncourt’s way with later music, from Mozart and Haydn, through Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann, to Bartók to Berio? Again there were always sundry revelations to savour en route, but some wilful mannerisms too (I cite the rhetorical pauses in Mozart 40’s finale as an example). What do people think? Will Harnoncourt’s recordings be heard as provocative signals from his time, or as a starting point for new trains of interpretative thought for ours? Please discuss.

8 thoughts on “Nikolaus Harnoncourt announces retirement

  1. Humphrey Burton

    I share your admiration for Harnoncourt. In the 80s I filmed performances (in Linz cathedral) of the Monteverdi Vespers and the Bach St John Passion. Both were extraordinarily intense and dramatic. He brought his sense of drama into the mainstream. HB


  2. The Teldec Bach cantata series Harnoncourt shared with the legendary Leonhardt must surely rate as one of the most important recording projects ever. The issues came at a crucial time for the period instrument movement, especially here in the UK. Many of today’s leading lights were ‘still in short trousers!’ and we needed to convince a sceptical press and media in 70s in particulat that performing Bach on instruments with which he would have been familiar, not only opens up a new sound world but draws the listener in more closely to JSB’s often complex writing and enhances our understanding and appreciation. Much of the Steinitz Bach cantata cycle was presented in tandem with the Teldec issues and Harnoncourt was a patron of an Appeal we launched to raise the funds to complete our own cycle. He is a kindred spirit and the musical world owes him a great deal.


  3. well Peter that seems as rare as poet laureates retiring. I’m just wondering whether it’s a medical condition that he needs to be careful about. Just don’t know. Equivocal about the new Concentus Musicus Beethoven 4 & 5 – wonderful though that the Leibowitz cycle has just reappeared on Scribendum , a 13-cd set that includes a Schubert 9 with the most exciting finale I’ve ever heard! Best. R.


  4. Steven Swalbe

    As a musician he is top notch. Some of the sounds produced are superlative; BUT he often plays the tempi of movements in the wrong order. (Sounds familiar? Preview)


    1. Yes Steven …. interesting point. I like the general thrust of what he does (or, sadly, did) but there’s nearly always some unexplainable eccentricity – unexplainable to me at least – that spoils the effect. Still, rather that than blandness.


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