“Nikolaus Harnoncourt, conductor laureate of the Berliner Philharmoniker and recipient of our Hans von Bülow medal, embodied the vitality of classical music more than almost any other. The unquestioning acceptance of tradition was a horror to him. With unrelenting curiosity and freshness, he illuminated and questioned musical scores again and again. In this way we learned an immense amount from him – also, and particularly, with regard to repertoire which we have played from time immemorial. This process was even more fascinating for us as it was not limited to philological discussion. It was Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s gift to transform his amazing knowledge into fantastically lively music making. Even his last concert with us, a Beethoven evening in October 2011, was of undiminished intensity and will be remembered by us as a highlight of our work together. Nikolaus Harnoncourt was in the truest sense an incomparable musician and a wonderful, close friend of the Berliner Philharmoniker. We will miss him enormously.“ Ulrich Knörzer and Knut Weber, members of the orchestra board
The Berliner Philharmoniker are much saddened by the death of Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who died on 5 March at the age of 86. Harnoncourt 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, Robert Schumann and especially Franz Schubert, whose works Harnoncourt always enjoyed including in the programme. This is also documented in the Berliner Philharmoniker's Schubert Edition, released in 2015, which includes the composer’s symphonies, the final two masses and the opera Alfonso und Estrella. 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 loss of Nikolaus Harnoncourt so soon after Pierre Boulez’s death leaves us all reeling. These two extraordinary men who, in their entirely different ways, changed the way we hear and perceive music, were for many of us the cornerstones of our musical philosophy. Nikolaus, with his restless and voracious curiosity, has left an indelible mark on the music making of our time. This was a man who seemed to burn with music, who infected all around him with an irresistible intensity. His last concerts with the Berliner Philharmoniker included an unforgettable Beethoven Fifth. In retrospect unwisely, I attended one of these performances directly before leading a late night concert; I was still shaking from the symphony while I attempted to conduct, so volcanic had been his effect on all of us.
I have so many memories of his profound generosity: there was no discovery or idea that he was unwilling to share or to expand upon. And, a true aristocrat, he treated everyone as his equal, a totally disarming experience for all of us. He performed without any kind of safety net, relying only on his vast knowledge and equally vast convictions, which could change from year to year as he followed his latest line of enquiry. I have rarely encountered music making of such stubborn vitality; or of such originality, at once intensely personal and seemingly selfless. My dear Nikolaus, we all owe you such debt of gratitude. How will we ever do without you?” Sir Simon Rattle