I have no idea what called me to music when I was barely old enough to be sentient, but as I got older, I wonder if it was the giants who could convey musical meaning in words that kept me coming back. Memories of David Zinman's Casual Concerts, Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts and Norton Lectures and PBS documentaries, Simon Rattle's Leaving Home documentaries, Michael Tilson Thomas's Keeping Score videos, watching Isaac Stern teach Chinese students in From Mao to Mozart, Itzhak Perlman's and Yehudi Menuhin's various videos, Daniel Barenboim's School for the Ear, speeches and witticisms from Thomas Beecham, Carlos Kleiber's conducting technique and rehearsal footage (ditto Bruno Walter's & Sergiu Celibidache's & Gennadi Rozhdestvensky's, and I'm a little ashamed to say, Herbert von Karajan's), Pierre Boulez's writings (I'm even more ashamed to say that...), the essays of Ian Bostridge and Alfred Brendel, Andras Schiff's lectures on the Beethoven sonatas, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf's masterclasses. Perhaps I went far too under the spell of musicians who could convey meaning in words, some of these musicians seemed almost more articulate in speech than they were in music, but what was so exciting about them was their ability to convey music's 'world behind the world', this world of spirit and hidden meaning. When you hear these people talk about music, you begin to believe that this world is really there and not just something a few of us misfits make up in our perhaps too fevered imaginations.
But inevitably, among the most inspiring of these figures were the 'early music' gurus. I have my sometimes grave doubts about the scholarship of what they purport, but perhaps more than any other musicians, they convey me the undiscovered country of music - recreating a mythic past, plausible or not, that utterly enriches our understanding of what music can be. It's easy enough to call them dogmatic, many of them are certainly guilty of that and they should never be absolved of their sins. But whereas a modernist like the late, and indeed lamented, Pierre Boulez, gave us dogmas that created a climate of intellectual fear in which less new music was performed than ever before, the early music gurus opened up the possibilities of music. Even if new music had utterly deserted the concert hall, music pre-Beethoven suddenly found itself with far more space than it ever had since the era in which it was composed. Works like Beethoven's Eroica and Handel's Messiah which we thought we knew backwards and forwards were given a shot in the arm, the possibilities of their meaning spread out to us completely afresh. When compared to this contribution, who cares if the scholarship itself was a little dubious?
At the very center of this revolution was Johann Nikolaus Graf de la Fontaine und d'Harnoncourt-Unverzagt. I mention his full name to give a sense of what Nikolaus Harnoncourt meant to us, and to history. Only a nobleman could have the credibility to take this noble music of the holy masters, and create something so proletarian from it. Before Harnoncourt, music was something so sacred that you risked terrible approbation by mussing it up. The sounds of Mozart and Beethoven were to the point of sheen. A Bernstein or a Solti who didn't treat it with proper reverence was inevitably accused of vulgarity or pandering to the masses. But in a sense, this old style of performance was the ultimate form of pandering. In the old record stores, popular music was supposed to appeal to our bodies, but classical music appealed to our souls. Popular music would disappear, but the eternity of classical music was proven, and will remain long after The Beatles and Bob Dylan and Duke Ellington disappeared.
Well... it's now 2016. The Beatles and Bob Dylan and Duke Ellington have not disappeared. If anything, they've proven to be no less eternal than the old masters. Meanwhile, we have to wonder. Classical music was once popular too. Shouldn't we bring back some of its old popular appeal? Shouldn't classical music appeal to our bodies as well as our minds and spirits?
Nikolaus Harnoncourt was the zero point of this new conception of classical music. It begins with him. Every music lover who loves this music lives in his world - whether its in support or in opposition to him.
How do you begin to do justice to such a consequential and imaginative performer? Like any performer who has so much documentation of his work, a lot of it is not as great as his reputation. But there is so much material that the extraordinary is unbelievably present. I can't begin to claim that I've heard anywhere near all of it. But let me give you at least a sampling of what's amazing about him.
Bach Magnificat: I don't know if the problem is me or him, but some of Harnoncourt's Bach has not worn as well on me as I had expected. It's nothing less than very good, but in some ways that's the problem. From the standpoint of 2016, it's neither fish nor fowl - creating early 20th century performances on 18th century instruments. It has neither the grand spiritual passion of earlier Bach performances or much of the vitality or intimate beauty of later Bach. Both approaches were created to suit the particular instruments on which they're played. In the late 60's hearing Harnoncourt's approach probably seemed like an earth-shaking tremor, but while Harnoncourt's Bach lacks the weaknesses of both approaches, it also lacks the glories. A 2 or 3 hour journey with Harnoncourt through the B-Minor Mass or one of the Passions can be a long journey indeed. The half-hour Magnificat on the other hand, basically a 30-minute super-cantata in Latin rather than German, is perfect for him. Listen to the opening and closing movements, or the trio of soloists before the finale, and try not to feel a twinge of the profoundest joy well up in your heart. The Magnificat, as few other Bach pieces do, needs both a raucous sound and grandeur, and by splitting the difference between Bach as he was performed by those before him and Bach as he was performed by those after, Harnoncourt gives a Magnificat unmatched.
Bach Cantata no. 29 Celebrity minded composers like Mozart and Beethoven would not feel at home in the DIY semi-obscure music scene of a place like Baltimore, but a DIY genius like Bach or Haydn (or Harnoncourt) would feel right at home here. Bach's cantatas are not really conducted. All you need is a few gifted musicians and you'll find a cantata that fits your instrumentation. Nevertheless, you have to mention the Bach cantatas in any list of Harnoncourt's great performances. Along with his friend Gustav Leonhardt, Harnoncourt recorded the first ever set of the 200-odd cantatas by Bach that still exist. Like any set of 200 anything from a great genius, the cantatas of Bach range from the incredible to the indifferent. One of the functions of Bach's cantatas was that they were like a laboratory in which he could incubate larger experiments. I don't know which came first, but parts of this cantata can be found in the third partita for solo violin and B-Minor Mass.
Haydn Symphony no. 31: Nikolaus Harnoncourt, an Austrian Count by birth, had a sure way with Bach and Monteverdi and Beethoven, but for me, even if for no one else, his true greatness picks up with Haydn. I'm not sure Harnoncourt understood or even liked a lot of German music - he never played Wagner or Richard Strauss. But in the great Austrian composers - Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Bruckner, and yes, Johann Strauss - he was a king. Under other conductors' batons, this is classical music. In Harnoncourt's hands, this is Folk Music. Harnoncourt did not do the greatest set of London Symphonies (93-104 - that's Minkowski and no doubt Fey will join him when he finishes), it was hampered by the presence of the Concertgebouw Orchestra, a great orchestra that's far too polished for this music. It required his home ensemble, the Concentus Musicus Wien, to give a true sense of just how weird this music is - a Wes Anderson movie in sound. Here, among all those conductors who conduct Haydn as a powdered wig pleasure, is a conductor who makes Haydn sound as strange as what's on the page. Just to give one example among many, no one can ever equal those deliberately obnoxious raucous hunting horns in the Hornsignal Symphony (#31), nobody even comes close. Listen to all the various effects in the finale of the Symphony no. 8 which are supposed to evoke a thunderstorm. Or listen to this amazing moment a minute from the end of the Symphony no. 60 when the violins retune in the movement for seemingly no reason at all. All these effects which sound quaint in the hands of less imaginative conductors not only sound more bizarre under Harnoncourt, but more inevitable too.
Haydn: Mass in Time of War Harnoncourt was a devout Catholic whose brother is an eminent Catholic theologian. Unlike so many composers who ignore the church music of the great masters they champion, Harnoncourt invested himself fully in the sacred sides of his chosen composers. Church music can be dull, it can also be sublime. Anybody who misses the sacred music Haydn wrote at the end of his life is missing some of the most sublime of all music. Mass in Time of War is exactly what it sounds like, not just with trivial war effects, but makes you feel a full dose of the collective fear and suffering, and the hope that eventually we get to lead a better life.
Mozart Gran Partita I may be the only person to think this, but the center of Nikolaus Harnoncourt's achievement is Mozart. When you hear Harnoncourt perform Mozart, you realize that you might have missed a full half of his personality. This is, easily, my favorite recording of the gorgeous Gran Partita. What I love about it is that it completely preserves the beauty of the soft passages, but nevertheless knows that kid gloves have their time and place and should not exceed them. Within a span of seconds, the beauties of Mozart's lyricism are contrasted with absolutely raucous party music in the loud passages. It's as though until Harnoncourt, an entire half of Mozart's character was completely missing, waiting for a musical archeologist to unearth him to us.
Mozart's Instrumental Oratorium Some of Harnoncourt's ideas are a steaming pile of bullshit. None moreso than this idea that Mozart meant for his last three symphonies to be an oratorio for instruments only. I can certainly believe that Mozart meant for these three symphonies to be played in the same concert, but no matter how much Harnoncourt insists that there's a thematic connection between the three, I'm pretty sure that he was the only one who heard it. But then again, never (at least in my experience) has everything else about these three symphonies been played with the dynamism, the understanding, the completeness that we hear in this version. Every bar, every phrase, every accent, means something. This is, for me, as close to definitive a performance of these three works as we get in this unideal world. If it gets this kind of performance, maybe Harnoncourt was right.
Mozart: Requiem We're still awaiting a 'definitive' performance of this unfinished work. But in my experience, never has a conductor gotten us closer to the bony hand of death than here. Mozart's Requiem should freeze your blood and terrify you with the impending reality, but most performances don't do that.
Mozart: The Abduction from the Seraglio Harnoncourt was a truly bizarre opera conductor. Other 'historically informed' conductors would take Mozart operas much faster than the typical romantically-informed performances. Harnoncourt would take the operas even slower. A Mozart opera under Harnoncourt could sound downright Wagnerian. But go back to the scores, the speeds Mozart specifies are often positively glacial and Harnoncourt is perhaps the only conductor to follow them to the letter of the law. When you hear Figaro or The Magic Flute under Harnoncourt, the happy-go-lucky composer we all love is almost completely gone, and so is momentum. In its place is a composer of far greater gravitas. Is it Mozart? I have no idea, but in its way it's still a revelation. Harnoncourt is one of the few superstar conductors who's performed and recorded Mozart's less mature operas like La Finta Gardiniera and Lucio Silla (not to forget, all the symphonies, even the ones he wrote when he was six or seven years old), so it's not like Harnoncourt is doing this with any lack of knowledge. But then... there's this recording of Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail. All it takes is listening to the first fifteen seconds to know that you're in for something completely different. This is the only performance, still, that takes all that Turkish music at face value. It also has a very funny Matti Salminen as everybody's favorite offensive ethnic caricature, Osmin.
Beethoven: Symphony no. 8 I was deeply disappointed to learn that Harnoncourt was planning on rerecording the Beethoven cycles before he died. Harnoncourt's Beethoven is rightly celebrated, but I can't help thinking that there's a still higher plane of musical interpretation to which his famous symphony cycle set never quite made it. I wonder if Harnoncourt himself didn't agree, he expressed reservations about Beethoven in interviews, whose music he avoided for the greater part of his career because of how the Nazis exploited it in his childhood. People love Harnoncourt's Beethoven because it squares the circle of conductors like Norrington and Gardiner whose Beethoven was like a systemic shock. Harnoncourt gave us Beethoven with the rougher sound of a smaller orchestra period brass and percussion, but fundamentally maintained the tempos and smooth string sound of old. It's another example of Schoenberg's famous dictum that the middle road is the only one that doesn't lead to Rome. All that said, there are some wonderful highlights. One of the great things about those late 80's/early 90's period cycles is that they forced listeners to take the 'little' symphonies nearly as seriously as the 'big' ones. None were more effective in that regard than Harnoncourt's, whose combination of moderate tempos and raucous force gave symphonies like the 2nd, 4th, and 8th a weight which perhaps no other conductor still ever matched.
Beethoven: Choral Fantasy But this is my favorite of the Harnoncourt Beethoven recordings - it's perhaps the strangest piece in the whole output of Beethoven's middle period. Pierre Laurent Aimard is not my favorite pianist, but working with Harnoncourt seems to put something in his water which, for once, makes him compelling in music before 1900. It also does justice as perhaps no other performance does to Harnoncourt's great insight into Beethoven. Harnoncourt himself was an aristocrat, but he leaves all the aristocratic dignity of Bohm and Karajan at the door - leaving beauty of tone behind and being completely fearless about creating the rudest sounds. When you hear Harnoncourt's solar plexus fortissimos, you hear a Beethoven created for the underclass about whose plight he cared so deeply. This is Beethoven to be played in the street, not in the concert hall. In this performance, the Choral Fantasy becomes like a parade that more and more people gradually join.
Schubert: Symphony no. 2 My favorite Schubert symphony. I can't point to any particularly special contribution to music or the history of performance here, except to say that it's thoroughly delightful.
Bruckner Symphony no. 4 Harnoncourt clearly had no patience whatsoever for the marmoreal turtle creeps of Bruckner conductors from a generation earlier (Celibidache, Giulini, Wand, Karajan...). The spirit with which they conducted Bruckner was profoundly un-Austrian - so concerned with the spiritual world of Bruckner that it completely forgets the physical world and the dance rhythms which clearly motivated so much of his composition - however elephantine those dances can occasionally seem. Such a conception is utterly untrue to the earthy, rural roots of this unsophisticated Upper-Austrian peasant. Bruckner was not a contemplative man or a deep thinker, he was a man who unquestioningly loved God with both body and soul. Perhaps this rendition is a little too unreflective - I could use more flexibility in the more reflective passages, but this is Bruckner that is far truer to the religious ecstasy which no doubt inspired Bruckner so greatly.
Johann Strauss: Emperor Waltz Except perhaps for Carlos Kleiber, has any conductor of the New Year's Concerts made these dances dance so nimbly? Perhaps Harnoncourt was even better than Kleiber. Kleiber was a bit hyper-active in this music, not quite able to simply relax and draw forth those melodies for maximum smile. Harnoncourt could match Kleiber's electricity thunder for thunder, but who else can get these melodies to sing with such ease?
Johann Strauss: Peasant's Polka: Just listen. Pure Austrian/Polish dance rhythm and...
Smetana: From Bohemia's Woods and Fields: Harnoncourt was clearly Austrian to the marrow, but Prague was right next door and he had fine sympathy for a lot of composers from the Central European provinces: Smetana, Bartok, especially Dvorak. His reading of Ma Vlast is incredibly different, but it's the reading of a master who has all sorts of insights that would never occur to Czech conductors closer to the source of tradition. I could include his fascinating reading of The Moldau here, but this movement from Ma Vlast is even more powerful. Harnoncourt puts nature itself under the microscope. The little minerals he finds in this piece are pure proto-Sibelius.
Dvorak: The Water Goblin One of the great semi-surprises of Harnoncourt's output was that he was perhaps the greatest conductor of Dvorak who wasn't also a Czech. In 2002, I heard him conduct the New World Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic, and many details of that performance will be etched in my mind forever. It's not quite idiomatic after the manner of Talich and Kubelik, but who cares? Harnoncourt has everything a Dvorak conductor needs, dramatic immediacy, an ear for riotous color, an indulgent love of melody and melancholy, and the ability to relax and let orchestras bloom with beauty.
Dvorak: Slavonic Dances Dvorak's music is folk music, almost popular dance music at times, and it needs a conductor utterly unafraid to put across the visceral thrill of his sounds. In my experience, only Rafael Kubelik gets to this level of excitement with Harnoncourt's frequency and utter spontaneousness. This is exactly what great musicmaking sounds like.