The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music anniversary: Pioneering maestro Nikolaus Harnoncourt turns 80 this Sunday | December 5, 2009

By Jacob Stockinger

Those of you who are above a certain age — say 45 — can remember when the Berlin-born Austrian conductor and cellist Nikolaus Harnoncourt started his illustrious career as a pioneer of the period instrument movement and an advocate of historically-informed performances. It was nothing short of a revolution in playing and hearing early music.

Then he went on to conduct mainstream and more modern repertoire (Brahms, Dvorak, Bruckner) with such large orchestras as the Vienna Philharmonic, the Berlin Philharmonic and the Royal Concertgebouw of Amsterdam.

This Sunday, Dec. 6, marks Harnoncourt’s 80th birthday.

Perhaps this Sunday morning — my favorite time of the week for listening to Baroque music  —  I will put on his early recordings of J.S. Bach’s violin concertos (on Teldec), one of my favorites of his countless recordings, along with his ear-opening interpretations of the Beethoven symphonies and piano concertos with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.

In fact, my favorite Harnoncourt recordings remain the ones he has done, and continues to do, with his home-base ensemble, which he founded in 1953, the Concentus Musicus of Wien (below), including Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and Mozart’s early symphonies.

(I confess that I miss women’s voices is his mammoth historic set, done with Gustav Leonhardt)  of the complete Bach cantatas, which uses boy choirs and boy sopranos.)

Listening to Harnoncourt conducting is almost always a guarantee of hearing even familiar music in a new and exciting way.

In fact, we’ll get another chance hear this still busy octogenarian at work when next week — timed perhaps to mark his birthday — Deutsche Harmonia Mundi will release a set of three Bach cantatas (including the famous No. 140 “Wachet auf” ) with Harnoncourt and the Concentus Musicus.

Anyway, however you mark Harnoncourt’s birthday, here are links to a biography of his career and some of his current views of music and music-making.

And here is a link to his Wikipedia profile:

What do you think of Harnoncourt and his contribution to classical music?

Do you have a favorite recording by Harnoncourt?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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