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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Obituary: Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1929-2016)

The master of period performance was 86.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Nikolaus Harnoncourt.
Photo Steirische Kulturveranstaltungen GmbH
Austrian conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who spearheaded the revival of baroque instruments and period performance practice in the course of six decades on the podium, has died. The maestro was 86.

Born Count Nikolaus de la Fontaine und d'Harnoncourt-Unverzag, and descended from a German count and the grandaughter of a Hapsburg arch-duke, Mr. Harnoncourt was born in Berlin. A cellist, he eventually found himself at the forefront of the movement to play music from the 18th and 19th centuries on antique instruments or on copies of the same. In 1957, he founded the Concentus Musicus Wien, which used only so-called "period" instruments in its performances and recordings.

Period instruments have a different timbre than modern ones. Examples include violins strung with gut strings, wooden oboes played without keys, and "natural" horns that force the player to change the length of pipe with metal "crooks" instead of valves. The CMW became celebrated for its interpretations of Bach, Telemann and other baroque composers, and inspired a wave of imitators.

His tireless research and efforts in this field made him a pioneer as well as the creator of a vast discography, first with the CMW and then with other ensembles including the Vienna Philharmonic. He was responsible for creating the first complete edition of the Bach cantatas to be released on vinyl and compact disc, opening the ears of many listeners and sparking an interest in music played on original instruments.

Also notable: his Beethoven cycle with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, including all the symphonies, all the concertos and an underrated recording of the opera Fidelio. Like many other conductors of his stature, he also recorded the complete symphonies of Schubert, Schumann and Brahms: idiosyncratic performances that are worth investigating.

In the 1980s and 90s, he moved into opera, recording major works by Mozart, Beethoven and even Verdi, many with the aforementioned old-school instruments. An international conducting career saw Mr. Harnoncourt on the podium in Salzburg, Vienna, London and New York's Carnegie Hall. His performances were always bold, innovative and stylistically distinct, with a tendency to prefer the composer's original intentions--or at least a close approximation thereof.

Mr. Harnoncourt had been suffering from health issues in recent months, and in December of 2015 announced his retirement from conducting in a letter to his listeners. In a statement on the conductor's website, it was said that "he took his last breath peacefully surrounded by family." He is survived by a wife, three daughters, and a tremendous artistic legacy.

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