Harnoncourt and The Netherlands, an in memoriam

When Nikolaus Harnoncourt died, on March 6th 2016, his status as a conductor of great international fame had been assured for many years. It is however worth stating that it was in The Netherlands that his international breakthrough occurred. He conquered the Dutch concert stages in the Seventies and it took some time before his own city, Vienna, recognised him as an authority and he was invited to conduct in other countries.

Harnoncourt came into contact with The Netherlands through the Groningse Bachvereniging, then under the direction of Johan van der Meer (the father of Bach cellist Richte van der Meer). In 1970 he hired the entire Concentus Musicus to perform Bach’s Magnificat. As a young soloist I was aware of the excitement this caused in the growing group of Dutch baroque fanatics, who travelled en masse to Groningen (in the North of the Netherlands).

The more traditionally orientated Dutch music world raised its eyebrows but – I must admit – the directors of the important orchestras didn’t shut their eyes (and ears) to the new movement. Three years after ‘Groningen’, in 1973, Harnoncourt conducted the Residentie Orkest (The Hague) in the St. Matthew Passion. In 1975 the Amsterdam Concertgebouworkest went one step further, asking Harnoncourt to dust off the annual passion tradition on Palm Sunday. In the course of the years with Harnoncourt, the orchestra made the conscious decision to learn how to play modern instruments in a manner adapted to the baroque style. The collaboration became permanent. After Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and later composers were also programmed. This musical marriage culminated in Harnoncourt’s appointment as honorary guest conductor of the Koninklijk Concertgebouworkest in 2000.

Leonhardt and Harnoncourt

Meanwhile Harnoncourt had been featured in the Holland Festival (with Concentus Musicus, in 1973) and at the Nederlandse Opera (Amsterdam), where he conducted Mozart’s three Da Ponte operas. At that time he met the young Dutch soprano Charlotte Margiono, whose international career he since promoted.

I remember an intimate ceremony at the Royal Palace on the Dam (Amsterdam) in 1980, where the Erasmus prize was awarded to Gustav Leonhardt and Nikolaus Harnoncourt together. Both made a speech and Harnoncourt proved himself an entertaining speaker, in no way inferior to the brilliantly eloquent Leonhardt.

The musical alliance between Leonhardt and Harnoncourt goes back to the Fifties. Leonhardt spent some time in Vienna and met Harnoncourt, who at the time was still earning his living as a cellist with the Wiener Philharmoniker, but was already setting up Concentus Musicus, specialising in baroque music.

After a time, their wives too discovered mutual interests: Alice Harnoncourt and Marie Leonhardt were both baroque violinists and played first violin in Concentus Musicus and the Leonhardt Consort respectively.

Cross-pollination took place between the two ensembles, out of which an Austro-Dutch family of musicians grew spontaneously. Among the old guard were musicians including Frans Brüggen, Anner Bijlsma, Ku Ebbinge, Jaap Schröder, Jaap ter Linden, Richte van der Meer en myself, but also the Fleming René Jacobs and several of his compatriots.

Das Alte Werk

Wolff Erichson, the producer of the Telefunken series Das Alte Werk, was of crucial importance in bringing together this group of kindred spirits. He not only shared the Vienna/Amsterdam passion for early music, but also stimulated and coordinated their cross-border activities. The most tangible result was an endless series of recordings by Erichson and his team, including music by Schütz, Monteverdi, Purcell, Telemann and Handel. Bach’s great oratorios too were recorded at an early date. I remember Leonhardt and Harnoncourt playing together for the first recording of the St. John Passion, Leonhardt at the organ and Harnoncourt playing cello, with Gillisberger conducting.

The culmination of that flood of recordings was of course the huge series of almost two hundred sacred Bach cantatas. The project was to take twenty years. The task was divided between Concentus Musicus and the Leonhardt Consort and the recording location alternated between Vienna (Austria) and Haarlem (the Netherlands). Several boys’ choirs from Austria and Germany were involved, augmented by adult baroque singers from Belgium and England. The producer and the music directors selected the vocal soloists from a small, restricted group of eligible singers. The key figure was the Viennese tenor Kurt Equiluz. Like his fellow townsman Harnoncourt, Equiluz had started relatively simply, namely as a second-string soloist with the Vienna State Opera. But Harnoncourt saw in him a Bach singer par excellence. And that is what he became – worldwide.

Every soprano aria was practiced by several boys from the relevant boys’ choir for each recording session. The music director chose the best one to go to the soloist’s microphone at the last moment. Exceptionally, the big solo cantatas for soprano were sung by women soloists. Hence, the Dutch soprano Marianne Kweksilber was asked to sing the hellishly difficult coloratura-cantata BWV 51, which Leonhardt would not entrust to a little boy.

Beyond early music

Although Bach remained predominant in the life of Nikolaus Harnoncourt, he gradually developed into an all-round conductor who – helped into the saddle by the Amsterdam Concertgebouworkest – conducted many great orchestras and at many important opera houses. Harnoncourt wrote books, taught at the Mozarteum in Salzburg and made innumerable recording beside the Bach cantata project, both with his own Concentus Musicus and with various symphony orchestras. As his health declined, he performed less and less on the cello and the viol.

It can be stated without exaggerating that the worldwide revival of early music in the twentieth century was dominated by Leonhardt and Harnoncourt, even though, as years went by, the two maestri differed as to views and character. Hence, they no longer shared the concert stage, but it was Wolff Erichson’s achievement that, during the Bach cantata project, he guided the two eminent conductors to the same goal, like two trains travelling to the same terminal on parallel tracks. Therefore, receiving the Erasmus Prize together in 1980 remained a valuable and significant event.

The author has gratefully made use of a few items in Peter van der Lint’s article “Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1929-2016)” in the daily newspaper Trouw of March 7th 2016.