LONDON, 19 November 2000 - Future
archaeologists of the classical record industry will trace its collapse
to the deaths, a year apart, of Herbert von Karajan and Leonard
Bernstein. For half a lifetime, these two busy batons monopolised
orchestral output, saturating the racks with self-repetitions. When they
died, a decade ago, the public refused to recognise the next pharoahs
and precipitated industrial wipeout.
No conductor since
Karajan has achieved brand-name recognition on record - with one
exception. Nikolaus Harnoncourt is a Habsburg by blood, a descendant of
Holy Roman emperors, who used to earn his crust as a back-row cellist in
Vienna's second orchestra until he decided that he knew better than most
maestros how classical music should sound.
In 1957, with his
violinist wife, Alice, Harnoncourt formed Europe's first professional
period-instrument group, the Concentus Musicus Wien. When his stark-pure
Bach challenged conventional upholstery, he was banned from Salzburg on
Then, in 1992, Harnoncourt stormed the
charts with a million-selling set of Beethoven symphonies. Contrary to
his typecasting as an early-music aesthete, he conducted the
full-blooded Chamber Orchestra of Europe on modern instruments in a
refreshingly direct blend of historical awareness and contemporary
Offers came flooding in: a lifetime contract with
Teldec, a New Year's Day concert with the Vienna Philharmonic. He made a
belated Salzburg debut and formed solid ties with the Concertgebouw and
Berlin Philharmonic. But he shunned America's Big Five, rejecting the
routines of industrialised music-making.
says Harnoncourt, "to play together and in equal pitch is not a
goal. For me, the rehearsal starts with the content of a piece - what it
means, how it can change the listener. I was an orchestral musician for
17 years and what I missed was the question 'why?'. I wanted to know why
Bruno Walter asked me to play like this . . . In those days, musicians
were slaves, but my musicians are partners and they have to know about
the conception. This is my way of working."
watches him in rehearsal, it becomes apparent that everything
Harnoncourt does arises from the logic of a single phrase that he
identifies as the heart of the work. Players in the Chamber Orchestra of
Europe, most of whom are soloists and section leaders in Europe's
premier orchestras, respond as much to his intellectual clarity as to
his hesitant, ever-courteous instructions.
he proposes, "I would ask you . . . could it be different in this
passage? Might it work better this way?" Halting a Haydn symphony
in mid-phrase, he says, "I would like to suggest something, which I
would ask if you find tasteful, or not?"
In everything he
does, by word or by gesture, Harnoncourt, 70, is the antithesis of the
star conductor. His baton thrusts and rostrum stance are jerky, lacking
choreographed grandeur. He abhors the dictatorship of the baton, harking
back in horror to his playing days, when conductors ruled by fear.
used to order a musician to play his part alone," he relates, "and
I have never seen anything less than terror when this happened. Two
players, friends of mine, suffered a complete nervous breakdown and were
dragged away to mental hospitals for electric-shock therapy. I know how
dangerous it is to work with musicians. I would never be the cause of
anything like that."
The more records he makes, the less
this principled, thoughtful man seems attuned to our flippant, cliched
age. Where current maestros, from Abbado to Rattle, are restricted to no
more than three discs a year, Harnoncourt now has carte blanche to
record whatever he likes. He is about to conclude a cycle of Mozart
symphonies, all 41 of them, and is also working his way through Bruckner
in Berlin, Vienna and Amsterdam. His discography runs to 250 items, more
than any living conductor except the sometime studio specialist, Sir
He mistrusts the media, gives few
interviews, disdains small talk. Yet he does not shirk awkward questions
and frankly ascribes much of his outlook to the simmering legacy of
growing up under the Nazis. "This was a time that left the greatest
imprint on my life," he affirms.
Born Nikolaus de la
Fontaine und d'Harnoncourt-Unverzagt in Berlin in 1929, Harnoncourt
returned as a boy to Graz, in southern Austria, where the family lived
in an ancestral mansion. His father, an aristocrat of French descent,
instilled Catholic and liberal views in his children; Nazism was
anathema at home.
"It left me with a great fear of not
being in control of my life," says Harnoncourt. "When a doctor
in 1936 gave me a reflex test and my leg jumped, I was horrified. He
could do that, and I could not resist. As a result, my reflexes do not
function any more." At 10 years old he was press-ganged into the
junior Hitler Youth. "If you did not go twice a week, they picked
you up and shaved your head." Early in 1945, the family fled to the
Salzburg region where Nikolaus, smitten with music and theatre, took
lessons with the cellist Paul Grummer and found a vocation.
was Karajan who, in 1952, picked him from 40 aspirants to play in the
Vienna Symphony Orchestra. At the audition, with Alice at the piano, he
played the first movement of the Dvorak concerto. "I heard later
that Karajan said immediately, 'That one - I like the way he sits down.
I'll take him.' " They remained on friendly terms until Karajan
took command of Berlin, Salzburg and the Vienna State Opera.
still don't understand why our relations went bad," he says. "Perhaps
it was due to his advisers. Karajan loved to perform Bach, but every
time he produced a choral recording it would be compared to mine, not
always favourably. I wrote to him once, and got a very nice reply, but
it remained impossible for me to work in Salzburg."
studied conducting by playing for the world's best conductors. He names
Carl Schuricht, Erich Kleiber, Karajan, Eugene Ormandy and Georg Szell
as the most memorable - "but I will not tell you which I learned
through loving them and which through hate".
All the while
he pursued a private obsession, trawling antique shops for baroque
instruments that could be put to use in his own ensemble. The
fascination with early music began at college, where students were
forbidden to play Mozart and were confined to Vivaldi and Corelli, "because
they were supposed to be easy". Harnoncourt rebelled, arguing that,
if Stradivarius and Amati were the greatest violin and cello makers, "how
was it possible that they should have made such brilliant instruments
for such dull music?"
When he started the Concentus -
without a pfennig of state subsidy, to this day - baroque music was
played by amateurs and ascetics. "If the sound was poor, they
preferred it," he laughs, "but, for me, an instrument was a
tool, not a cult."
In 1971, he conducted his first opera,
Monteverdi's Ritorno d'Ulisse in Vienna, and repeated it at La
Scala. He formed a partnership in Zurich with the director Jean-Pierre
Ponnelle and began challenging the maestro cult in Romantics and
moderns. Much of his new work is first heard in Graz, which has given
him a June festival.
Beethoven, never truly at home in Vienna,
is on his mind again. He has begun preparing the piano concertos, year
by year, with Pierre-Laurent Aimard, a Parisian modernist much involved
with Boulez and Ligeti. The contrast between Habsburg universalism and
French nouveau-chic appeals to Harnoncourt. It is for such iconoclastic
turns of mind that he attracts such tough-minded collaborators as Martha
Argerich and Cecilia Bartoli, who names him as her first-choice
conductor. Their performance of Haydn's long-dormant opera, Armida,
was acclaimed in Vienna as "a triumphant resurrection"; the
recording is released this month.
Harnoncourt stands apart in
the post-maestro era as the Frank Sinatra of conductors, doing music his
own way. What he brings to the art is a quiet authority and an almost
childlike inquisitiveness. His performances are never pre-formed; he
will often change details on impulse.
"Every musician can
read the music, study the period and claim to be correct," says
Harnoncourt. "But for me the question is always why a composer
wrote in a certain way. And that's what constantly interests me, the
content not the form."
Dates on Mr. Harnoncourt's current tour with the Chamber Orchestra of
Europe include London (Royal Festival Hall, 23 November), Paris (Cité
de la Musique, 24 November), Toulouse (Halle aux grains, 25 November),
Berlin (Kammermusiksaal, 27 November), Lucerne (Kunsthaus, 29 November),
Vienna (Musikverein, 30 November), Frankfurt (Alte Oper, 1 December),
Baden Baden (Festspielhaus, 2 December), Cologne (Philharmonie, 3
Related articles and links:
Gives a New Sound to Brahms
Symphonies de Brahms: version Harnoncourt
Orchestra of Europe
credit: Marco Borggreve / Teldec Classics
Norman Lebrecht is a columnist
for London's Daily Telegraph and the author of several books on culture.
His most recent book, Covent Garden, The Untold Story: Dispatches
From The English Cultural War, 1945-2000, was published by Simon &