It was one of the oddest retirement notices in memory. Concertgoers attending a Dec. 5 performance by Concentus Musicus Wien found in their programs copies of a handwritten note from the storied early-music ensemble’s founder and guiding spirit, Nikolaus Harnoncourt. “Dear audience, my physical strength requires me to cancel my future plans,” the brief communiqué began.
“Great ideas have arisen,” Harnoncourt, then one day shy of his 86th birthday, went on. “Much will remain.”
Those two concise statements say much about him. Of all the musicians to have come to prominence with the rise of early music, Harnoncourt was the most interesting, precisely because he refused to be cabined by its seemingly simple delineations. He was a trailblazer in the use of period instruments — his farewell note referred to the Concentus and its audience as “a happy community of pioneers.” And yet his lasting influence may well rest not in that specific artistic cubicle but in his wider-ranging thirst for a species of musical performance that was not merely accurate but vivid, risk-taking, and alive.
It’s worth thinking about Harnoncourt on this first day of 2016, when a music lover’s thoughts drift toward Vienna and its storied tradition of New Year’s Day concerts at the city’s Philharmonic Orchestra. Harnoncourt, who led the New Year’s Day concerts in 2001 and 2003, began his career in 1952 as a cellist with its crosstown rival, the Vienna Symphony Orchestra.
He played for many of the era’s greatest conductors, and learned quickly what he liked and what he didn’t. In a 2012 BBC interview he estimated having played 100 concerts under George Szell. “He can be happy that I did not kill him,” said Harnoncourt, who despised the obsession with perfection that Szell and other maestros harbored. “For me, security and beauty are not compatible. When you seek beauty, you have to forget security, and you have to go to the rim of catastrophe. There you find the beauty.”
Creating the Concentus in 1953 was a direct outgrowth of playing Bach and other pre-Classical composers in Vienna. “The music was much better than the performances,” he told me in a 2003 interview. “It was exciting in temperament if I looked in the score, but when I played it with the orchestra. . . it was like marmalade without structure.” (He was also the only musician I’ve interviewed to profess admiration for Buster Keaton.)
So Harnoncourt, along with his wife, Alice, and a like-minded band of renegades, began buying old instruments and traveling through Europe to find and copy old manuscripts, by hand. For years they only played at the Harnoncourts’ home for their own satisfaction. They did not perform in public until 1957, after which they were immediately deluged with invitations to record.
The Concentus would go on to produce several early-music landmarks: a celebrated cycle of Monteverdi operas, a complete recording of Bach’s sacred cantatas. But Harnoncourt, who continued to play in the Vienna Symphony until 1969, never thought of himself as an early music specialist, nor did he want to play with them. In our interview, he called himself “an enemy of ‘specialism.’ ”
“I didn’t want to breed specialists,” he told the BBC. “I wanted to have musicians who were playing in normal orchestras. I didn’t allow them to specialize, even if they were very good. Because if they play just Baroque music, they should just eat Baroque food. Music is so much connected with life. The great works of history, they have no time. A great work of Leonardo da Vinci will always be modern. Music of Mozart or Bach or Monteverdi — that is always up to date.”
That is why, in addition to having kick-started the period-instrument revolution, Harnoncourt also leaves a lasting legacy of performances well outside early-music’s purview. He could be magnificent, he could confound, but he always seemed to bring a new angle to whatever he conducted. He was a marvelous Dvorak conductor, and I have rarely heard better Strauss waltzes than those he led with the Vienna Philharmonic at Symphony Hall in 2003, his last visit to Boston. You would not think of him as a Bartok conductor, but his recording of the Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta is wonderfully tough and acidic. And what other conductor would be adventurous enough, at age 80, to learn a new opera — Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” at that?
All of which brings us to the Berlin Philharmonic’s 8-CD box set of Schubert performances under Harnoncourt, recently issued on the orchestra’s own label. Any preconceptions of how an “early-music conductor” would approach Schubert — brisk tempos, dynamic uniformity, emotional restraint — will be swept away with the thunderous opening of the First Symphony. All the early symphonies have a Brucknerian heft to them, while the “Unfinished” is so slow and anguished it seems to point toward expressionism. (When asked in the BBC interview about repeating works in performance, he replied, “When I do the ‘Unfinished,’ I cannot die every day. If I play this kind of piece, I have to stop playing it for 10 years.”)
Filling out the set are fine readings of the last two masses and a concert performance of the opera “Alfonso und Estrella.” Schubert’s deficiencies as an opera composer have been rehashed so often as to need no repetition; less well appreciated are the ways in which his genius as a songwriter and his ability to create atmosphere are audible in these works. Whatever its dramatic shortcomings, the opera contains loads of gorgeous music, and the cast, including tenor Kurt Streit and soprano Dorothea Röschmann in the title roles, is excellent — as is virtually everything in this lavishly packaged set.
What remains in the wake of Harnoncourt’s active career is the legacy of a musician who delighted in thwarting expectations. He sought authenticity: not just a concern for being accurate, but also a hunger to unlock the essence of what made each piece and era unique. Knowledge was only the starting point, never an end in itself. “The last word is the taste,” he told the BBC. “I don’t feel obliged to do what was done then, because I am not the warden of a museum. It is not only information. There must never be dogmatism in art. In art only the result counts.”David Weininger can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.