Obituary: Nikolaus Harnoncourt

Austrian conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Picture: Getty
Austrian conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Picture: Getty
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Conductor was influential in reviving interest in baroque music

Nikolaus Harnoncourt, conductor and early music specialist.

Born: 6 December 1929 in Berlin.

Died: 5 March 2016 near Salzburg, aged 86.

Nikolaus Harnoncourt was a musician much respected by his fellow musicians who was influential in reviving interest in baroque and early music. He became an authority on 17th century music and wrote widely on the subject. But such was his command of a wide variety of music he drew memorable playing from both traditional and early music orchestras.

Harnoncourt performed and recorded early music gaining wide spread admiration for recording the complete 200 surviving Bach sacred cantatas. It was his devotion to music-making that endeared Harnoncourt to an increasing number of fans. Indeed he was a prolific recording artist: his modern instrument account of the Beethoven symphonies with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe in 1992 was an immediate best seller. His contribution to the recording industry was marked in 2009 when he was awarded a special life-time achievement award.

Harnoncourt worked with many of Europe’s major orchestras, including the Vienna Philharmonic and Berlin Philharmonic. His relationship with the Vienna Philharmonic became especially close and he twice conducted (in 2001 and 2003) the famous Strauss New Year’s Day concerts. Some of his concerts upset both traditionalists and purists but his scholarship and devotion to the music ensured any Harnoncourt concert was thrilling and illuminating.

Nikolaus Harnoncourt was born into an aristocratic family with connections back to the Holy Roman Emperors. He was raised in Graz and attended the Vienna Conservatoire studying the cello. While still at Graz he became a member of the Hitler Youth. “If you didn’t go there every Wednesday and Saturday,” he said, “The Hitler Youth police would come, fetch you, cut your hair and toss you into a group with other difficult ones who were treated terribly.” His real feelings were demonstrated when he tried to set fire to a Messerschmitt factory.

After the war Harnoncourt joined the cello desk of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and one of his first assignments was to play the difficult cello parts in Richard Strauss’s Salome under the redoubtable Karl Böhm at the Vienna Opera. “The whole one and a half hours was a nightmare” he later recalled. “But I must have done something correct, because the orchestra invited me again and again after that.”

Significantly, in 1953 Harnoncourt founded the period-instrument ensemble Concentus Musicus Wien which was dedicated to playing period instruments. Harnoncourt had discovered dusty old instruments in lofts around Vienna unplayed in years. He loved the sound they made and had them repaired. Furthermore he had grown increasingly disenchanted with the expansive sound of international orchestras under such maestri as von Karajan, Szell and Klemperer. “Brahms sounds like Handel, or Handel like Brahms” he moaned.

Harnoncourt remained with the Vienna Symphony until 1969 – playing mostly under von Karajan. But their differing attitudes to music caused a rift which never healed. Harnoncourt’s conducting commitments increased and he was in charge of an exceptional account of Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria at La Scala, Milan, in 1970 – and a regular guest at the opera house in Zurich. It was with them that Scotland witnessed Harnoncourt at first hand when the Zurich company visited the Edinburgh Festival in 1978. They performed ‘stunning’ accounts of d’Ulisse and L’Orfeo but it was Harnoncourt’s conducting that won rave reviews. The Scotsman recorded, for the latter, “Harnoncourt and the orchestra are the proper heroes, sounding superbly crisp and colourful”.

Other performances at Zurich and Vienna included a re-evaluation of the Mozart operas and other 18th century composers. But Harnoncourt was a delightful musical maverick. Despite being closely associated with the baroque he embraced the 20th century – with Bartók and Berg featuring prominently in his repertoire. He said he would approach Wagner in the style of French operetta. Alas, that wish was never realised. One that was came in 2009 when Harnoncourt recorded Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.

Harnoncourt hated travelling and confined much of his music-making to Germany and Austria. However one of his last appearances on the podium was conducting a poignant account of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis in 2012 in London.

Harnoncourt preserved a friendly and informal attitude at rehearsals – refusing to be called maestro (“the only maestro I know is my hairdresser”) and he delicately cajoled musicians, often asking a section if they “could reconsider that entry in the third movement”. There was no hysterics and certainly no bullying Harnoncourt was a gentle and thoroughly decent man.

Harnoncourt married Alice Hoffelner in 1953. She survives him, as do their two sons and a daughter. Another son died in a car accident.