An Interview with Nikolaus Harnoncourt by Norman Lebrecht (11/2000)
„For me, the rehearsal starts with the content of a piece - what it means, how it can change the listener. I was an orchestral musician for 17 years and what I missed was the question „why?“. I wanted to know why Bruno Walter asked me to play like this... In those days, musicians were slaves, but my musicians are partners and they have to know about the conception. This is my way of working.“
Norman Lebrecht is a columnist for London's Daily Telegraph and the author of several books on culture. His most recent book, Covent Garden, The Untold Story: Dispatches From The English Cultural War, 1945-2000, was published by Simon & Schuster.
The interview with Nikolaus Harnoncourt was recorded November 19th, 2000, in London.
Future archaeologists of the classical record industry will trace its collapse to the deaths, a year apart, of Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein. For half a lifetime, these two busy batons monopolised orchestral output, saturating the racks with self-repetitions. When they died, a decade ago, the public refused to recognise the next pharaohs and precipitated industrial wipeout.
No conductor since Karajan has achieved brand-name recognition on record - with one exception. Nikolaus Harnoncourt is a Habsburg by blood, a descendant of Holy Roman emperors, who used to earn his crust as a back-row cellist in Vienna's second orchestra until he decided that he knew better than most maestros how classical music should sound.
In 1957, with his violinist wife, Alice, Harnoncourt formed Europe's first professional period-instrument group, the Concentus Musicus Wien. When his stark-pure Bach challenged conventional upholstery, he was banned from Salzburg on Karajan's orders.
Then, in 1992, Harnoncourt stormed the charts with a million-selling set of Beethoven symphonies. Contrary to his typecasting as an early-music aesthete, he conducted the full-blooded Chamber Orchestra of Europe on modern instruments in a refreshingly direct blend of historical awareness and contemporary zeitgeist.
Offers came flooding in: a lifetime contract with Teldec, a New Year's Day concert with the Vienna Philharmonic. He made a belated Salzburg debut and formed solid ties with the Concertgebouw and Berlin Philharmonic. But he shunned America's Big Five, rejecting the routines of industrialised music-making.
„For me,“ says Harnoncourt, „to play together and in equal pitch is not a goal. For me, the rehearsal starts with the content of a piece - what it means, how it can change the listener. I was an orchestral musician for 17 years and what I missed was the question 'why?'. I wanted to know why Bruno Walter asked me to play like this . . . In those days, musicians were slaves, but my musicians are partners and they have to know about the conception. This is my way of working.“
As one watches him in rehearsal, it becomes apparent that everything Harnoncourt does arises from the logic of a single phrase that he identifies as the heart of the work. Players in the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, most of whom are soloists and section leaders in Europe's premier orchestras, respond as much to his intellectual clarity as to his hesitant, ever-courteous instructions.
„Maybe,“ he proposes, „I would ask you . . . could it be different in this passage? Might it work better this way?“ Halting a Haydn symphony in mid-phrase, he says, „I would like to suggest something, which I would ask if you find tasteful, or not?“
In everything he does, by word or by gesture, Harnoncourt, 70, is the antithesis of the star conductor. His baton thrusts and rostrum stance are jerky, lacking choreographed grandeur. He abhors the dictatorship of the baton, harking back in horror to his playing days, when conductors ruled by fear.
„They used to order a musician to play his part alone,“ he relates, „and I have never seen anything less than terror when this happened. Two players, friends of mine, suffered a complete nervous breakdown and were dragged away to mental hospitals for electric-shock therapy. I know how dangerous it is to work with musicians. I would never be the cause of anything like that.“
The more records he makes, the less this principled, thoughtful man seems attuned to our flippant, cliched age. Where current maestros, from Abbado to Rattle, are restricted to no more than three discs a year, Harnoncourt now has carte blanche to record whatever he likes. He is about to conclude a cycle of Mozart symphonies, all 41 of them, and is also working his way through Bruckner in Berlin, Vienna and Amsterdam. His discography runs to 250 items, more than any living conductor except the sometime studio specialist, Sir Neville Marriner.
He mistrusts the media, gives few interviews, disdains small talk. Yet he does not shirk awkward questions and frankly ascribes much of his outlook to the simmering legacy of growing up under the Nazis. „This was a time that left the greatest imprint on my life,“ he affirms.
Born Nikolaus de la Fontaine und d'Harnoncourt-Unverzagt in Berlin in 1929, Harnoncourt returned as a boy to Graz, in southern Austria, where the family lived in an ancestral mansion. His father, an aristocrat of French descent, instilled Catholic and liberal views in his children; Nazism was anathema at home.
„It left me with a great fear of not being in control of my life,“ says Harnoncourt. „When a doctor in 1936 gave me a reflex test and my leg jumped, I was horrified. He could do that, and I could not resist. As a result, my reflexes do not function any more.“ At 10 years old he was press-ganged into the junior Hitler Youth. „If you did not go twice a week, they picked you up and shaved your head.“ Early in 1945, the family fled to the Salzburg region where Nikolaus, smitten with music and theatre, took lessons with the cellist Paul Grummer and found a vocation.
It was Karajan who, in 1952, picked him from 40 aspirants to play in the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. At the audition, with Alice at the piano, he played the first movement of the Dvorak concerto. „I heard later that Karajan said immediately, 'That one - I like the way he sits down. I'll take him.' “ They remained on friendly terms until Karajan took command of Berlin, Salzburg and the Vienna State Opera.
„I still don't understand why our relations went bad,“ he says. „Perhaps it was due to his advisers. Karajan loved to perform Bach, but every time he produced a choral recording it would be compared to mine, not always favourably. I wrote to him once, and got a very nice reply, but it remained impossible for me to work in Salzburg.“
He studied conducting by playing for the world's best conductors. He names Carl Schuricht, Erich Kleiber, Karajan, Eugene Ormandy and Georg Szell as the most memorable - „but I will not tell you which I learned through loving them and which through hate“.
All the while he pursued a private obsession, trawling antique shops for baroque instruments that could be put to use in his own ensemble. The fascination with early music began at college, where students were forbidden to play Mozart and were confined to Vivaldi and Corelli, „because they were supposed to be easy“. Harnoncourt rebelled, arguing that, if Stradivarius and Amati were the greatest violin and cello makers, „how was it possible that they should have made such brilliant instruments for such dull music?“
When he started the Concentus - without a pfennig of state subsidy, to this day - baroque music was played by amateurs and ascetics. „If the sound was poor, they preferred it,“ he laughs, „but, for me, an instrument was a tool, not a cult.“
In 1971, he conducted his first opera, Monteverdi's Ritorno d'Ulisse in Vienna, and repeated it at La Scala. He formed a partnership in Zurich with the director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle and began challenging the maestro cult in Romantics and moderns. Much of his new work is first heard in Graz, which has given him a June festival.
Beethoven, never truly at home in Vienna, is on his mind again. He has begun preparing the piano concertos, year by year, with Pierre-Laurent Aimard, a Parisian modernist much involved with Boulez and Ligeti. The contrast between Habsburg universalism and French nouveau-chic appeals to Harnoncourt. It is for such iconoclastic turns of mind that he attracts such tough-minded collaborators as Martha Argerich and Cecilia Bartoli, who names him as her first-choice conductor. Their performance of Haydn's long-dormant opera, Armida, was acclaimed in Vienna as „a triumphant resurrection“; the recording is released this month.
Harnoncourt stands apart in the post-maestro era as the Frank Sinatra of conductors, doing music his own way. What he brings to the art is a quiet authority and an almost childlike inquisitiveness. His performances are never pre-formed; he will often change details on impulse.
„Every musician can read the music, study the period and claim to be correct,“ says Harnoncourt. „But for me the question is always why a composer wrote in a certain way. And that's what constantly interests me, the content not the form.“