Nikolaus Harnoncourt Honored by Royal Philharmonic Society
Austrian conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt was awarded the Royal Philharmonic Society Gold Medal in London on Sunday, April 22. The award recognized his pioneering role in period-instrument performance practices of Baroque and Classical works, both in the instrumental and choral repertoire, and for his continuing contributions as a conductor, cellist, teacher, and author.
Harnoncourt was born in Berlin, Germany in 1929, and was raised in Austria and studied music in Vienna. Although he was a cellist with the Vienna Symphony for most of the 1950s and 60s, during that time he founded one of the first important period-instrument orchestras, the Consentus Musicus Wien, which performs music in a historically informed manner on period-instruments. With that ensemble he made ground-breaking recordings of Bach, Monteverdi, Rameau, and Purcell, among others. He was noted as a choral as well as instrumental conductor, and by the 1970s, was already famous.
Harnoncourt is also known as a pioneer of conducting modern-instrument orchestras in a historically-informed manner. He altered the sound in terms of tempos, dynamics and other qualities, not only for Baroque composers such as Bach or Handel, but for Haydn, Mozart, and on into the the Romantic era with Beethoven up to Bruckner and beyond.
While one may quibble with individual new/old interpretations, his approach has revitalized the whole question of how modern orchestras and conductors go about interpreting works of different time periods, and many do find his way to be revelatory and exciting. He helped blow the cobwebs off of what some people felt was a tradition growing stale with over-inflated ensemble size and plodding tempos. Say what you will, but he forced other conductors to look afresh at what they were doing.
This week on Symphony @ 7 we’re featuring maestro Harnoncourt in recordings with his own Consentus Musicus, as well as prominent modern instrument orchestras with which he frequently performs. Join me for this interesting musical journey.