Published: October, 2016
Author: David Hoehl - TNT USA
The modern world of pre-"capital C"-Classical music has lost two of its pioneers this year: Austrian Nikolaus Harnoncourt on March 5 and Englishman Sir Neville Marriner, at age 92, a few days ago, Sunday, October 2, 2016. Both were widely recognized experts in the field; both were first-rank recording artists; and each represented a different thread, not always in harmony, in the early music tapestry.
Marriner, son of a music-loving carpenter and housewife in Lincoln, was born on April 15, 1924 and began his career as a violinist, among other postings serving as principal second violin of the London Symphony Orchestra from 1952 to 1969. His fame, however, rested on his work as a conductor, particularly with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, a crack chamber orchestra he and about a dozen friends from the LSO founded in 1958. Although originally intended as an informal outlet in which the members could enjoy playing without the pressures of their professional commitments, after its first few public performances the group quickly landed a recording contract with the l'Oiseau Lyre label, then with Argo, and on and on to become possibly the most recorded chamber ensemble in history.
Marriner and the ASMF (as most music lovers refer to the group) were by no means the first such ensemble devoted to exploring pre-classical literature in the modern era; the German Adolf Busch and Marriner's countrymen Boyd Neel and Reginald Jacques, among others, had created earlier groups of a similar sort, and in fact Marriner had played under both Neel and Jacques, but the ASMF benefitted from felicitous timing, coming along just as the advent of the stereo LP aroused a voracious appetite for catalogue creation or renewal among record labels. Seizing the opportunity, Marriner and his band steadily expanded their numbers and their discography on numerous labels.
For a time, they seemed to be everywhere; noteworthy recordings included highly successful accounts of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons, in the days before that work had so thoroughly saturated the recorded classical cosmos; a cycle of Bach's Brandenburg Concerti in a then-new scholarly edition by Thurston Dart; and even the soundtrack music for the successful film Amadeus. As the period instruments movement gained currency, however, modern instrument groups began to find themselves harder and harder pressed to hold a place in baroque literature; in response, the ASMF began performing later literature, and eventually Marriner, who once dismissed the upstarts as “the open-toed-sandals and brown-bread set”, began conducting mainstream symphonic groups.
For his contributions to music, Marriner was named Commander of the British Empire in 1979, knighted in 1985, and inducted into the Order of Companions of Honour in 2015.
Nikolaus Harnoncourt had no need to wait for a grateful nation to confer titles on him: he inherited them at birth. He was born on December 6, 1929, to parents who occupied an offshoot line of the Habsburg nobility of Austria, as reflected in his full name, Johann Nikolaus Graf de la Fontaine und d'Harnoncourt-Unverzagt. Like many noteworthy conductors, he began as a cellist, although he also early on studied viola da gamba.
During the exact years that Neville Marriner was leading the second violinists of the LSO (1952-1969), Harnoncourt played cello in the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, but he moved to found his analogue to the ASMF, the Concentus Musicus Wien, in 1952, several years before Marriner and his friends would coalesce into the ASMF. Harnoncourt's group, however, would not make its public debut until four years after its founding, and where ASMF presented chamber-scaled performances on modern instruments, from the first the Concentus Musicus was dedicated to performing on period instruments, putting it in the vanguard of what would become the dominant force in early music performance.
Like the ASMF, the Concentus Musicus was by no means the first organization of its type in the 20th century; for example, the Dolmetsch family in England was building and performing on period instruments a good three decades or more earlier. Harnoncourt and Concentus Musicus did, however, benefit from the same recording boom that would buoy Marriner and the ASMF, and their discography, generally for the German Telefunken (later Teldec) label with side trips to labels like Deutsche Harmonia Mundi and Sony, if not perhaps quite as vast, was still an impressive achievement.
High points would include the first “historically informed” recordings of Bach's Mass in B Minor and St. Matthew Passion and the first period instruments cycle of the Brandenburg Concerti, all under Harnoncourt, and a complete cycle of Bach's cantatas in which Harnoncourt shared conductorial honors with fellow early instruments revival pioneer Gustav Leonhardt.
Concentus Musicus and Harnoncourt were also responsible for one of classical music's great party records, a recording of Handel's Water Music in which the natural horns throw raspberries right and left. In a more serious vein, Harnoncourt can be heard as cellist in a complete traversal of Bach's cello suites, recorded in Harnoncourt's home in Vienna by the US Musical Heritage Society label, under whose aegis it was available by mail order only, the cellist and label having agreed it would not be made available in stores. Nonetheless, it later appeared on unauthorized CD issues and eventually with Harnoncourt's permission in Teldec's Bach 2000 collection.
As leader of a period instruments ensemble, Harnoncourt was a beneficiary, not a victim, of the shift in public taste to disfavor modern instruments in baroque literature. Nonetheless, in time he ventured beyond Concentus Musicus to conduct later literature and mixed or all-modern instrument ensembles. These explorations bore fruit in, among other things, a critically acclaimed cycle of the Beethoven symphonies with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. He also conducted Mozart operas at the Salzburg Festival and operas with the Vienna State Opera, and he was named Honorary Guest Conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, with which he had made numerous appearances and some recordings.
Harnoncourt received a wealth of honors during his career, including Austrian state recognition with the Austrian Cross of Honor for Science and Art, First Class, in 1987 and the Austrian Decoration for Science and Art in 2008.
I'll close on a personal note. I never heard Harnoncourt, Marriner, or the Concentus Musicus in person, but I did attend a concert by the ASMF not too long after its transition from Marriner's leadership. I remember being struck by how beautifully the group combined razor-sharp precision with a sense of easy give and take to offer exquisitely balanced performances, all without the benefit of a formal conductor (if memory serves, at that point Iona Brown was leading while playing from the first violinist's chair). This quality is the sort of thing that often doesn't come across on records. Leaving aside his stature as a conductor, the man obviously had tremendous skills, not necessarily always given express recognition, as an orchestra builder.
Copyright 2016 David Hoehl - firstname.lastname@example.org - www.tnt-audio.com