The citation of the society read ‘“Nikolaus Harnoncourt was a pioneer in the early period instrument revival, but much more besides. As a conductor his name is legendary with singers for his extraordinary vision into early, baroque, classical and even operetta. Performances with Harnoncourt are always unique and special.
Nearly 60 years ago he formed the Concentus Musicus Wien with period instruments, but he also works with most of the world’s main orchestras using modern instruments and was one of the earliest pioneers of this dual approach. His performances of the Monteverdi operas along with the Mozart cycle in Zurich stand as landmark events. He is a man who is dedicated to music and humanity.”
The gold medal was initiated in 1870 to commemorate the Centenary of Beethoven’s birth and to celebrate the close relationship between the Society and the composer. The medal bears the effigy of Beethoven, and has become one of the greatest honours in the world of music, there having been fewer than 100 medals presented in the intervening years.
Among the names on the list of honour are Brahms (1877), Fritz Kreisler (1904), Delius and Elgar (1925), Richard Strauss (1936), John Barbirolli (1950), Kathleen Ferrier (1953), Stravinsky (1954), Britten (1964) Horowitz (1974) Lutoslawski (1986) and Bernstein (1987)
Current Gold Medal recipients include: Claudio Abbado, Janet Baker, Daniel Barenboim, Pierre Boulez, Alfred Brendel, Elliott Carter, Colin Davis, Placido Domingo, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Henri Dutilleux, Bernard Haitink, Thomas Quasthoff, Simon Rattle and Nikolaus Harnoncourt.
Born in Berlin, in 1929, the Austrian conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt spent his childhood and youth in Graz, where he grew up in the Meran Palace. His father was a descendant of the de la Fontaine-d’Harnoncourt-Unverzagt family, Counts of Luxembourg and Lorraine, his mother the great-granddaughter of Archduke Johann of Styria.
Harnoncourt studied cello at the Vienna Academy of Music and joined the Vienna Symphony Orchestra as a cellist in 1952. Having gained an interest in period instruments and renaissance and baroque musical performance tradition, only a year later; together with his wife Alice, he founded the Concentus Musicus Wien ensemble.
From 1972 Nikolaus Harnoncourt taught performance practice and the study of historical instruments at the Mozarteum University of Music and Dramatic Arts in Salzburg, while at the same time enjoying growing success as an opera conductor.
He made his operatic debut in 1971 at the Theater an der Wien with Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria. This was followed by a cycle of Monteverdi operas, which he developed in collaboration with Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, director at the Zurich Opera House.
These productions were greatly acclaimed and seen as a tremendous breakthrough in the performance of early opera. This cycle was followed by a ground-breaking cycle of Mozart operas, again at the Zurich Opera House and again in partnership with Ponnelle.
Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s career as a conductor of both orchestral works and opera is extremely wide and encompasses the great Viennese Classics, the Romantic repertoire and works from the 20th century.
He has worked with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, and the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonic Orchestras, in the concertos and symphonies of Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Dvorák and Bruckner, as well as the works of Bartók and Berg.
In 1985 the styriarte Festival, a summer music festival taking place in the Styrian capital, was founded in Harnoncourt’s home city of Graz and it is there that he first conducted Schumann’s Genoveva, the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde and, in 2001, Verdi’s Requiem. In 2003 followed the first scenic production of an opera with Offenbach’s La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein and in 2005 Bizet's Carmen.
In 2008 Nikolaus Harnoncourt not only conducted but also directed a highly acclaimed production of Mozart's Idomeneo, in Graz followed, in 2009, with a highly acclaimed production of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess.
His recordings have been equally impressive and too numerous to cover in this blog. However, amongst those that stand out is his recording of Monteverdi’s l’Orfeo, with Concentus Musicus Wien www.warnerclassics.com/release,MonteverdiLOrfeo_4873.htm
This performance has a simplicity and directness that to me strongly appeals, with the 1968 recording still sounding excellent.
Harnoncourt’s Bach is represented in particular by two exceptional recordings. The first is a marvellous St Matthew Passion. www.warnerclassics.com/release,StMatthewPassion_2656.htm
His Bach B minor Mass from 1968 was a landmark in Bach performance and still sounds tremendous today. www.warnerclassics.com/release,MassinBminorBWV232_4836.htm
Harnoncourt’s Mozart opera recording are available from Warner Classics either individually or in three box sets at a remarkably low price.
Recorded with both the Arnold Schoenberg Choir and Concentus Musicus Wien (using period instruments) and the Choir of Zürich Opera and the Mozart-Orchestra of Zürich Opera (using modern instruments), despite much competition, these performances never disappoint. www.warnerclassics.com/search.htm
Harnoncourt’s Beethoven symphony cycle recorded with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe is another ground breaking recording bringing freshness to these much recorded works. www.warnerclassics.com/search.htm
Of Harnoncourt’s Handel recordings I have only recently acquired his 1990 live recording of Theodora made in Großer Saal, Konzerthaus, Vienna. www.warnerclassics.com/release,HandelTheodora_5592.htm
This recording has had its critics due to some cuts that are made and what are described by some as ‘eccentric tempos’. I find that Harnoncourt brings to life this oratorio that was Handel’s own favourite, with brisk tempos but without missing the pathos in the quieter sections. With a fine line up of soloists, excellent playing from Concentus Musicus Wien and rich recorded sound I have enjoyed this immensely. Unless you are a purist that cannot put up with the small cuts, then I would recommend this issue.
Finally Harnoncourt’s Brahms symphony cycle should not be overlooked. www.warnerclassics.com/release,SymphoniesNos1-4HaydnVariationsAcademicFestivalOvertureTragicOverture_959.htm
With the Berlin Philharmonic on fine form in repertoire they know well, these live performances bring a clarity and freshness to Brahms. Nowhere here is anything that could bring an allegation of eccentricity, yet these are intense, thrilling performances that I would not be without.
I am sure that others will have their own favourite Harnoncourt performances and, indeed, will not necessarily agree with my choice but surely no one can dispute the sheer musicality of the man whose whole life has been dedicated to great music making.