Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who celebrated his 86th birthday on 6 December 2015, has had several musical careers: For the general public, the most spectacular is that of the Early Music specialist who, with his boundless curiosity, his unconventional ideas and his Ensemble Concentus Musicus, revolutionized the performance practice of Renaissance and Baroque music. Then there was his career as an orchestral musician, when for 17 years, from 1952 to 1969, he was a cellist with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, in addition to his careers as a teacher, author, and finally as a celebrated conductor.
In this role, he had a 20 year long fruitful collaboration with the Berliner Philharmoniker. In 1991, Nikolaus Harnoncourt made his conducting début with the Berliner Philharmoniker with works by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Just two years later, he returned with a programme of Classical and Romantic works consisting of Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 102, Felix Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony, plus Franz Schubert’s Overture to the Zauberharfe and four of his songs in an arrangement for orchestra by Johannes Brahms. “Probably the most musically productive, the best, and most inspiring guest conductor to have worked with the orchestra in recent times,” as a review reported at the time.
Lots of Schubert
Over the years, Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Berliner Philharmoniker have given 90 concerts and 29 programmes in Berlin and at the Easter festival in Salzburg. The repertoire performed ranged from Handel and Bach to Haydn and Beethoven to Bruckner. However, the musical focus was on works by the Romantic composers Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, Robert Schumann and especially Franz Schubert, whose works Harnoncourt always enjoyed including in the programme. Who can forget his Beethoven and Brahms cycle, or the concert performance of Joseph Haydn’s Dramma eroicomico Orlando Paladino in 2009? In his most recent concerts with the orchestra in 2011, Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducted Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and his C major Mass. “Truly a monument of unconventional, ground breaking interpretation,” wrote the critic of the Berliner Morgenpost.
A native of Berlin
Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who was born in Berlin in 1929 and grew up in Graz, turned to conducting because it irritated him as a cellist to perform works in a way he could not relate to. As Harnoncourt reveals in an interview for the Digital Concert Hall, his experience as an orchestral musician had a decisive influence on his work as a conductor. For him, it is important to make the musicians understand why he wants to have a work played in one particular way rather than another. “I owe it to them as a conductor.” Music making on an equal footing – this is his ideal. The Berliner Philharmoniker took his style on board, and they were just as impressed by his profound knowledge of the works they worked on together. “Nikolaus Harnoncourt has given us a new perspective on the works of the great masters of the 18th and 19th centuries. He has always made us want to explore the stylistic truths beyond the score itself. We owe him our greatest thanks,” says Peter Riegelbauer, Orchestra Board member of the Berliner Philharmoniker. The orchestra has already shown its particular appreciation for Nikolaus Harnoncourt on two occasions – with the Hans von Bülow Medal, which the Philharmonic Community presented to him in the year 2000, and with the honorary membership awarded to him by the Berliner Philharmoniker during a guest appearance in Vienna at the Musikverein in March 2014.