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Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1929-2016)

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Mozart, Requiem Mass

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Beethoven, Symphonies
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Bach, Sacred Cantatas

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Monteverdi, Operas
Nikolaus Harnoncourt died on Saturday, at the age of 86. Born into an aristocratic family as Johann Nikolaus Graf de la Fontaine und d’Harnoncourt-Unverzagt, he will be remembered best as a bomb-throwing instigator in the early years of the historically informed performance movement. He founded Concentus Musicus Wien in the 1950s, with his wife, violinist Alice Hoffelner, at a time when no other professional ensembles were playing on historical instruments. It is impossible now to overstate the impact of his recorded cycle of Bach's sacred cantatas, made in collaboration with Gustav Leonhardt. With ensembles playing on period instruments and reflecting the new research on the size and nature of the performing groups Bach worked with in his career, those recordings were a revelation. Scholars told us that Bach wrote most of his soprano cantata parts for boy trebles, but before the Harnoncourt-Leonhardt recordings, most of us had no idea what that might have sounded like. The project lasted two decades, and although other, better cantata cycles have replaced it in my estimation, I will never forget the first time I heard one of those Teldec LPs in the music library as an undergraduate student at Michigan State University.

As I have written before, it is no exaggeration to attribute the beginning of the Monteverdi revival to Harnoncourt's traversal of the composer's operas, in the 1970s at the Zurich Opera, in stagings by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. Equally influential was the Beethoven symphony cycle with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, in many ways the beginning of the colonization of post-Baroque music by historically informed performance specialists. Harnoncourt's was a career not without misfires, but as Warner is in the midst of reissuing the conductor's early achievements for Das Alte Werk (Teldec), collectors can again explore that most important phase of his career.

For the most part, Harnoncourt's later recordings with mainstream orchestras are not generally among my favorite interpretations. In the last two decades, he went further and further into the 19th- and even 20th-century repertoire, recording Schubert, Schumann, Dvořák, Brahms, and Bruckner, for example. His work in these areas — and in some of his later recordings of classical works — often struck me as excessively mannered, even erratic (and I am not the only one), but there are exceptions. His recording of the Verdi Requiem and a new recording of Bach cantatas have come in for high praise from our European correspondent.

Other Remembrances: MTV (!), The Telegraph, New York Times, Deutsche Welle, Washington Post, Le Monde

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