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Nikolaus Harnoncourt & Concentus Musicus Wien

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Bach Cantatas & Other Vocal Works

General Discussions - Part 3

Continue from Part 2

Harnoncourt Doctrine: Secco Recitative Accompaniment

Thomas Braatz
wrote (September 6, 2001):
By coincidence, while researching OVPP [the connecting link here is Arnold Schering], I found a reference to one of Schering's obscure theories: Whenever the instrumental ensemble in Bach's Leipzig cantatas was small or reduced in numbers, the typical organo basso continuo part in the recitatives is replaced by a combination of harpsichord/lute and a viola da gamba that was used for additional support (to help sustain the notes.) As the viola da gamba, which not only sustained the note(s) but also filled out the chords as well (remember the curved bows!) could no longer compete against the volume created by the larger instrumental ensembles, it was gradually replaced by the violoncello. With its larger sound and the ability of the cellist to move more quickly over the strings, the usual, slow-sustained accompaniment of the viola da gamba was replaced by the vigorous, more swiftly arpeggiated chords [remember the straight bows!] of the cello.

A book documenting the changed style of secco recitative accompanied by a cello alone was written by a cellist from Augsburg, but living in Holland, Johann Baumgartner. His book, published in 1774 in Den Haag, is entitled, "Instructions de Musique théorique et pratique à l'usage du Violoncello." In this book he gives examples on how the secco recitative should be accompanied: Where a figured whole-note is indicated, the cello should play an arpeggiated chord sweeping upwards. Once the chord has been sounded (timewise a quarter-note value of the whole note indicated is 'used up,') there is no more sound from the instrument. "It is against the rule, in this type of accompaniment, to hold out the note for its full value," Baumgartner states.

There it is, in black and white, the earliest evidence, as far as I can determine, that musicologists have been able to uncover, albeit with the arpeggiated chord indicated. The stroke of genius by Harnoncourt removes the chord, but still sticks by this rule for abbreviating the note values!!!

Harnoncourt's application of this rule in Bach's cantatas (50 years earlier!) with an entirely different set of circumstances prevailing, demonstrates that Harnoncourt was oblivious to all the changes that had taken place in the meantime: 1) an almost completely different technique for playing a related, but not too closely similar instrument had evolved, and 2) Mozart had already composed and performed 10 operas by the time Baumgartner's book was published (certainly Baumgartner would supply rules and prescriptions for operas such as these, and not be concerned about including methods that had been used in a Leipzig church a half century earlier. And perhaps to indicate that Baumgartner's rule is further substantiated by another document, "Méthode de Violoncelle et de Basse d'Accompagnement" by Baillo, Levasseur, Catel and Baudiot (Paris 1804) is certainly a move in the wrong direction.

Unless someone can point to an earlier document closer to the time of the 1720's when Bach composed most of his cantatas, I feel that I have uncovered the source of just one of the numerous flaws in the Harnoncourt Doctrine.

Riccardo Nughes wrote (September 6, 2001):
Just a curiosity:
in 1708 Bach, in Weimar, had a pupil named Johann Christoph Baumgartner, who was a pupil of Ohrduf Bach's brother Johann Christoph. He was 2 years younger than Johann Sebastian. Is the same Baumgartner you're talking about?

Charles Francis wrote (September 6, 2001):
[To Thomas Braatz] Check out:

and the follow-up discussion!

Thomas Braatz wrote (September 6, 2001):
Riccardo asked: < In 1708 Bach, in Weimar, had a pupil named Johann Christoph Baumgartner, who was a pupil of Ohrduf Bach's brother Johann Christoph. He was 2 years younger than Johann Sebastian. Is the same Baumgartner you're talking about? >
The Johann Christoph that you speak about does not even have a separate
entry in the MGG, but Johann Baptist (Jean Baptiste) does: born 1723 in
Augsburg where he remained until 1768 when he began concertizing throughout
Europe. He died in 1782.

[To Charles Francis] Thanks for the discussion you pointed out that took place before I entered the BCRL and BRL. Vvvvvery interesting. (I am trying to say this with a German accent.) I had no idea that this had been discussed and that you were way ahead of me. Now for the non-Harnoncourt 'biggie': OVPP.

A site dedicated to Harnoncourt

Riccardo Nughes wrote (September 8, 2001):

Some curiosities:

-a Musical Offering where Harnoncourt plays with R.Baumgartner & I.Ahlgrimm (does anybody know something about this serie of recording?)

-this is proclaimed to be the first HIP recording of the Brandenburg concerts (has anybody have this recording? where it can be possible to buy it, if still in print??)

-one "object of desire" the cd version of the 1966 Johannes Passion

Bradley Lehman wrote (September 8, 2001):
< Riccardo Nughes wrote:
-this is proclaimed to be the first HIP recording of the Brandenburg concerts (has anybody have this recording? where it can be possible to buy it, if still in print??) >
Yes, I have that first Harnoncourt set of Brandenburgs on LP, Telefunken set 6.35043 (reissue of SAWT-9459/60). Pretty good performance. Harnoncourt makes a point in the notes that all the balance is natural and they used a simple pair of microphones without any artificial effects.

Laurent Planchon wrote (September 8, 2001):
< Riccardo Nughes wrote:
-this is proclaimed to be the first HIP recording of the Brandenburg concerts (has anybody have this recording? where it can be possible to buy it, if still in print??) >
I think it is still available, but I must confess that I have never really tried to get it. And as far as the claim of being the first HIP recording is concerned, my recollection is that they used a mix of both modern and historical instruments. For instance I believe the trumpet is modern. Since I have not heard it, I can't say anything about the HIP'ness of the inter-retation per se.

Speaking of "object of desire", mine is the 1985 SMP (BWV 244) with the Concertgebouw which is deleted amd unlikely to be reissued anytime soon (disawoved by H. himself). I still hope to find it one day in the used bins of some shop somewhere sometimes.

Laurent Planchon wrote (September 8, 2001):
[To Bradley Lehman] I believe you are refering to his second recording from the 60s (on Telefunken). This one is directed by Horenstein and was made during the 50s. Unless if course I am totally confused.

Bradley Lehman wrote (September 8, 2001):
[To Riccardo Nughes] ...but you might also be interested in the 1954 recording conducted by Jascha Horenstein. Who's a viola da gamba player on there? Nikolaus Harnoncourt!

Bradley Lehman wrote (September 8, 2001):
[To Laurent Planchon] Harnoncourt's with the CmW has a (P)1964 on the back of the box, and the front proclaims: "Erstaufnahme in Originalbesetzung mit Originalinstrumenten".

I heard some of the 1954 Horenstein set in a shop soon after it came out on CD (late 1995); didn't feel libuying it that day, I don't remember why. But it's still readily available. Vox 5519. I believe my recollection matches yours: a mixture of Baroque instruments and modern instruments.

Let's not forget Otto Klemperer, who did an excellent set of the orchestral suites (on modern instruments) in 1954.... He was trying to get the Brandenburgs going on original instruments as early as 1936: "In the summer of 1936 Klemperer's friend and champion Ira Hirschmann had with Schnabel's support established a small concert-giving organisation, the New Friends of Music, to provide New York with the regular series of chamber music programmes the city had hitherto lacked. Such was the success of the first season that Hirschmann decided to spread his wings and set up a chamber group, the Orchestra of the New Friends of Music. Klemperer was his first choice as conductor. In early December 1936 Klemperer sent Hirschmann concrete proposals. He suggested that the series, which could be conducted from the harpsichord, should include the six Brandenburg Concertos, performed with a small string band and original instruments. He would use baroque bows." (Peter Heyworth, Otto Klemperer: His life and times, vol 2, p90)

Yoël L. Arbeitman wrote (September 8, 2001):
[To Riccardo Nughes] Fascinating that H. played under Horenstein (a Mahler cult conductor these days---his nephew Yaacov participates in Mahler-L). But what do you mean my calling the Gillesberger-H Johannes P. "one 'object of desire'"? It is indeed the only object of my desire as my LPs are beyond repair and cannot produce any results in taping or any other medium. And I miss it. I presume that this will never be on the mkt. as it has been superceded by H.'s with female adult singers.

Charles Francis wrote (September 8, 2001):
< Yoël L. Arbeitman wrote: I presume that this will never be on the mkt. as it has been superceded by H.'s with female adult singers. >
The 1965 Gillesberger/Harnoncourt Johannes-Passion (BWV 245) was released on 2-CD's by Teldec in 1993 as part of "Das Alte Werk". If you can't find it let me know.

Philip Peters wrote (September 8, 2001):
< Riccardo Nughes wrote:
some curiosities :
-a Musical Offering where Harnoncourt plays with R.Baumgartner & I.Ahlgrimm (does anybody know something about this serie of recording?) >
I have it on LP. The other players are Alice Harnoncourt and Kurt Theiner. It was recorded in 1957. I don´t know whether it was issued on CD. It is recommended, were it only as a stage in the historical development of performing the MO.

Riccardo Nughes wrote (September 8, 2001):
Yoël L. Arbeitman wrote: "But what do you mean my calling the Gillesberger-H Johannes P. "one 'object of desire"
here was nothing offensive to you in my words. You're not the only persone searching that double CD box set (myself included!).

Riccardo Nughes wrote (September 8, 2001):
[To Philip Peters] Thanks for the info:are you sure it was recorded in 1957? This lp is vol.X in a serie "Samtliche werke fur clavicembalo": do you anything about other volumes?

Philip Peters wrote (September 8, 2001):
[To Riccardo Nughes] I have it on a Philips twofer. The MO is actually dated 1956. The other LP contains the cello sonates by Harnoncourt & Ahlgrimm and was recorded in 1957. I am not familiar with the series you mention (but now I have gotten very curious) but it must be the same recording.

Yoël L. Arbeitman wrote (September 8, 2001):
[To Riccardo Nughes] There is never anything offensive to me on most lists. I assumed you meant what you mean! Thank you. Let us search the world together. How stupid for such documents to become ephemera.

The dialectic of Authentic Performance

Santu De Silva wrote (September 21, 2001):
Andreas Burghardt wrote: ".....I am disappointed, about the ignorant and disgusting defamation taking place in this group to this outstanding musician and some of the interprets on this recording. Harnoncourt has done incredible work of cleaning the Bach cantatas from the dust of romanticism. ..."
Count me among the Harnoncourt fans. I don't like Harnoncourt all the time, but there are a few conductors whose work I'm more than 50% likely to enjoy, and he's no 1 on that list.

When a tradition of performance has been firmly established, and you believe that it should be "overthrown," well, you overstate your case. Harnoncourt's performances of the 70s were exaggerated contrasts to what he was opposed to. There is the thesis, and the antithesis.

I believe, in the present case, that the truth lies somewhere between the Beecham / Karajan / Sargent / Klemperer romantic performances and the Harnoncourt / Koopman / Joshua Rifkin / Christopher Hogwood ultra-hyperauthentic performances. But I also believe that the truth lies closer to the early Harnoncourt style than do, for instance, Rilling's performances.

Perhaps Harnoncourt had little or no evidence for doing things his way. But those who followed showed how that style, with modifications, illuminated the music. If what we have learned is not the "actual style in which the music was performed", at the very least we have something wonderful.

Incidentally, I personally like Gönnenwein's work and his singers, too. Nobody can claim that I'm an authentic junkie.

New release

Tony Collingwood wrote (September 22, 2001):
< Vicente Vida wrote: Brilliant Classics recordings. They have just re-released their entire Bach set in a smaller format. Instead of jewel boxes, the CDs are all in sleeves. This could be much cheaper than the already cheap first release (I have no price info). So, if you are interested in getting the cantatas and some of the other works, this might be a very affordable solution. <
Does anyone have the year 2000 Bach Edition? If so, how do you rate the Cantatas and Passions?

Kirk McElhearn wrote (September 22, 2001):
[To Tony Collingwood] You mean the Teldec set? These are the recordings by Harnoncourt and Leonhardt, which are the staples of Bach cantata recordings. While they have their weak points, they are generally good to excellent.

Yoël L. Arbeitman wrote (September 23, 2001):
I saw the other day the Bach 2000 packaging of the 2nd Harnoncourt (not the Gillesberger-Harnoncourt) Johannes Passion. Not only is the general printing of the jewel box stupid looking and cheap, but the name of the mezzo Marjana Lipovsek, bc. it contains a s+hacek (which I cannot do in e-mail) has resulted in the hacek alone appearing and no s. So we get LIPOV^EK (let's make believe that the circumflex is
upside down).

Harnoncourt tall

Bradley Lehman wrote (October 24, 2001
< Francine Renee Hall wrote: He seemed pleased and proud of that area in his work. He also wrote a very sweet and warm note in my Harnoncourt book! He's very, very tall (6'3") and looks very healthy for someone in his '70's. I've never had any desire to meet or speak with any other great musician. >
Harnoncourt may be tall, but Edward Parmentier has him by a couple more knuckles or so. He's one of the tallest people I've ever met. Among people who don't play basketball, he and a Dutch man were the two tallest people I knew in seven years in Ann Arbor.

If you have the "Musica Pacifica" recording of the Bach trio sonatas (Virgin 45192), check out the group photo inside. Judith Linsenberg, Elizabeth Blumenstock, and Elisabeth Le Guin are standing in front of Parmentier, and none of them come up to his shoulders.

He told me an anecdote about one of his concert tours in Japan. They had him staying in a tiny bed somewhere, and he complained to the hotel management that he "couldn't get a foot on." They then misunderstood this and sent him a futon.

Harnoncourt Repertoire

Francine Renee Hall wrote (October 28, 2001):
Yes, Harnoncourt doesn't sit still. Even if he uses non-HIP instruments, he utilizes a 'HIP' approach. I have three Beethoen symphonic cycles, all different, my latest being Harnoncourt's (Gunter Wand, Gardiner, and Harnoncourt). He's not afraid to explore or get stuck in a time warp.

Nikolaus Harnoncourt Interview

Francine Renee Hall wrote (October 29, 2001):
So that mean Karajan caused some nervous breakdowns and kicked poor Harnoncourout! 250 recordings for Harnoncourt....

Charles Francis wrote (October 29, 2001):
[To Francine Renee Hall] When it comes to Bach's choral music, Harnoncourt is truly the worthy successor to HvK.

Gustav Leonhardt Biography

Francine Renee Hall wrote (November 11, 2001):
Leonhardt was my very first harpsichord purchase in the 60's, on the old Telefunken label, playing wonderful pieces by Couperin and Frescobaldi. Thanks for letting everyone know he shines as far as clarity goes in Bach's WTC. --Francine (Leonhardt website below):

Aryeh Oron wrote (November 11, 2001):
[To Francine Renee Hall] Are you aware that there is a short biography of Gustav Leonhardt in the bios section of the Bach Cantata Website:
In that page you can also find also links to other relevant pages about GL in the Bach Cantatas Website, as well as links to other sites. The bios section includes now bios of more than 1,000 performers of Bach Cantatas and other Vocal Works (mainly conductors, singers, and instrumental and vocal ensembles).

Francine Renee Hall wrote (November 11, 2001):
[To Aryeh Oron] Thanks so much for sharing the wonderful Leonhardt website you sent! I'm savoring this one! Besides having Gardiner, Rifkin, Jacobs, Mauersberger, and Rilling in my modest cantata repertoire, Harnoncourt (his Tölzer boys' choir is a nice touch) and Leonhardt hold a very special place in my heart! I have lots of cantata ground to cover yet! (and I'm going to check out Suzuki soon!) Thanks again!

Bach 2000: The Complete Bach Edition by various

Francine Renee Hall wrote (November 24, 2001):
I was just curious to know if anyone has bought the Teldec Bach 2000 complete edition! I bought the sampler and enjoyed it very much! (I saw it packed in a 'suitcase' with 'trunk' handle on top.) Does anyone know the price? I shudder at the thought!!!

Pablo Fagoaga wrote (November 24, 2001):
[To Francine Renee Hall] I own BACH 2000, and in my opinion it's worth the money (even considering that here in Argentina I had to pay as much as TWICE it's "international" price). I NEVER regreted the aquisition. The information in the booklets is quite reasonable, the artists involved in the recordings, comments!! The only thing I would really change if I could, is the boy sopranos on the Sacred Cantatas. But if H/L's choice is OK for you (or even just "tolerable"), go ahead with no doubt. I'm trying to know more about Hänssler's Bach Edition, which I'm sure it is outstanding, but a major drawback is the price. Teldec's "suitcase" is around $1000 on Internet, while Hänssler's set is almost $1800

Kurt Jensen wrote (November 24, 2001):
[To Francine Renee Hall] I was given the Bach 2000 Set this last Christmas, an extraordinary thing. I am in the United States, and though I didn't quite pry this hard, I do understand the set is in the $1000 range. There is the luxurious convience of comprehensivity; there is nothing discussed in a biography, a study, or this list, that I do not have immediate access to.

I was thrilled to see Koopman doing most of the organ work, and Harnoncourt's Cantatas remain stunning. Some of these recordings are nearly 30 years old, and so may not represent the newest things being done, but they are surely among the finest.
There are some concerns, if such things interest you. They do not come in individual jewel boxes; each CD is enclosed in a cardboard slip cover, which is gathered with 7-15 others in the same musical category, and inserted into a box. There are 12 boxes in all, each containing a rather thick booklet, about the size of a cigarette case, with notes on the music.

The keyboard work is exclusively harpsichord; no piano, or earlier instrument (e.g. clavichord, lute-harpsichord) will be found.

The Bach 2000 set has recently begun to appear in individual, jewel-boxed CD's, as has the Hanssler Edition for some time now.

I am collecting the Hanssler set in individual CD's, and have only some 30 Cantatas of the 160 individual volumes yet to acquire. The Hanssler set has some distinctions: it offers early versions of some works, as well as work "reconstructed" for instruments such as the oboe. The instrumentation, generally, is broader (though loyal to the Bach's intent) than Teldec's Bach 2000.The Chorales themselves are grouped thematically, and come in 9 separate CD's. The Hanssler set also groups both Clavier-Buchlein fur Anna Magdalena Bach, and that for Wilhelm Friedemann, in three distinct volumes.

Which is better? I suppose I believe that no single performance of any of the works is definitive, and find that my tastes vary from set to set. Koopman's organ work is a majesterial statement by an acknowledged authority (though he does not surpass, in my opinion, Lionel Rogg, who's boxed Organ Works on Harmonia Mundi is stunning); yet Hannsler's broader cast of instrumentalists give a richer sampling of the riches in the music.

Good luck!

Kirk McElhearn wrote (November 24, 2001):
< Pablo Fagoaga wrote: I'm trying to know more about Hänssler's Bach Edition, which I'm sure it is outstanding, but a major drawback is the price. Teldec's "suitcase" is around $1000 on Internet, while Hänssler's set is almost $1800 >
Of the Hänssler CDs I have - almost all keyboard works - most are excellent. I think the cantatas are fine as well, if you like Rilling. So, most of the set is good.

The Brilliant Classics set - in the new, cardboard sleeve version - is also very good, and a very low price. (But, I don't know if it is available in the US.)

Kirk McElhearn wrote (November 24, 2001):
< Kurt Jensen wrote: I am collecting the Hanssler set in individual CD's, and have only some 30 Cantatas of the 160 individual volumes yet to acquire. >
A note on this - Hanssler has just started releasing boxes at much lower prices - the cantatas, for example, are being released in three boxes at about half the price of individual discs.

Harry J. Steinman wrote (November 24, 2001):
[To Kirk McElhearn] I like the Brilliant Classics set. Much has been written, pro and con, about the cantatas-whether or not they suffer from being hurried, or from the voice of the alto-but the instrumental recordings are excellent with some wonderful performers and performances. At any price, much of this set is first-rate.

Francine Renee Hall wrote (November 25, 2001):
[To Kurt Jensen & Pablo Fagoaga] Thank you so much for describing the general high quality of this formidable set. I'm afraid this set in its entity is way beyond my financial range. The sampler is quite good—I highly recommend it. As far as using boys for voices in the cantatas is just great for my taste. I have volume 35 of Harnoncourt's cantatas where boys' voices are heard, and it is quite beautiful. (These are cantatas 140, 145, 143, 146 and 144). Isn't using boys' voices HIP? I thought Bach used boys at his Thomasschule. I know they misbehaved though! :) Thanks again. It's good to know the powers that be have broken up the entire set for easier purchasing. --

Aryeh Oron wrote (November 25, 2001):
[To Francine Renee Hall] The German internet store
has the complete Teldec set (153-CD) for DM 1500, and the complete sacred cantatas (60-CD) from this set for DM 600.

AFAIK these are the lowest frices for both sets over the web.

IMHO, the set of the cantatas is an essential purchase for every cantata lover, whether he (or she) likes boy sopranos or not. This is almost the only option of hearing boys singing the soprano parts. Most of the other singers are good to excellent (Equiluz!). The level of performance is not always satisfactory, but in some of the cantatas (H or L) achieve the best results (f.e., Leonhardt in BWV 7).

Francine Renee Hall wrote (November 25, 2001):
[To Aryeh Oron] Thanks so much for keeping me informed about the Teldec cantatas and the prices involved! I appreciate and will save the website you sent!

Diedrick Peters wrote (November 25, 2001):
[To Pablo Fagoaga] I brought the set from MDT (England) and paid about $750.00, which included a $90.00 postage and insurance fee.

Pabol Fagoaga wrote (November 26, 2001):
[To Francine Renee Hall] You like boy sopranos?? So, you'd LOVE BACH 2000.
Yes, boys are HIP, but the one who is not so much HIP it's me. :o)

Francine Renee Hall wrote (November 26, 2001):
[To Kurt Jensen & Pablo Fagoaga] Hi Pablo! Yes, the Teldec Bach 2000 set is a true Holy Grail for me! You not liking boy sopranos is fine with me too! And one doesn't have to worry about boys misbehaving or Bach running around with a sword to protect himself against bullies!! (Yes, I've been 'touched by an angel' and now own the Malcolm Boyd Bach!) LOL

Ludwig wrote (November 29, 2001)
[To Kirk McElhearn] The Teldec seems to be cheaper in Europe than in US. The $500-1000 US Dollar price is what I have seen here. It supposedly contains everything that Bach wrote and then some---the compositions of doubtful attributions.

Kurt Jensen wrote (November 29, 2001):
[To Ludwig] You are correct, all BWV numbers are included--i.e. the six "Little Fugues"--yet the liner notes do not present them as authentic. In this sense, Bach 2000 might be considered an historical, as well as a musical, document: everything that has been considered Bach's is included. Thanks,

Nikolaus Harnoncourt on boy sopranos

Boyd Pehrson wrote (January 2, 2002):
In 1977 Nikolaus Harnoncourt was interviewed by Bernard Jacobson for Jacobson's book "Conductors on Conducting." Harnoncourt was, at the time, in the middle of a vast project to record all of Bach's cantatas with period instruments, and Bernard Jacobson wanted to know Nikolaus Harnoncourt's musical perceptions regarding performing and conducting J.S. Bach's works. In the forward of his chapter on Harnoncourt's thoughts about performing Bach's music, Jacobson notes that in his interview with Harnoncourt: "dogmatism, however, was refreshingly absent. For Harnoncourt, unlike some of his more academic colleagues, musical perception and poetic imagination are more important than intellect, and all truly musical solutions to a stylistic problem have value in his eyes."

One of those musical solutions to a stylistic problem was Harnoncourt's use of boy soloists in performing arias of Bach's sacred works, to which the conversation turned. It is very interesting to note that while Harnoncourt repeats the wrong idea of Bach having access to large amounts of boy sopranos of late teenage years (later I shall post my article on boy voice change in the 18th century showing why the idea is wrong), the argument that boy sopranos in their late teens were available in great numbers to Bach did not hinder Harnoncourt at all from using well trained twelve and thirteen year old boy sopranos. In fact, Harnoncourt shatters the myth that boy sopranos are somehow incapable of bringing deep musical understanding to the performance of Bach's works. For Nikolaus Harnoncourt, the question was not one of quality, but one of quantity of boys.

Jacobson: "Coming back to Bach, may I ask you whether, in building up the complex of the whole performance, going from single brick to whole work, and including old instruments- whether there is anything you regret the loss of? I'm thinking, for example, of the sort of musical penetration and understanding that, in performances of the cantatas, a really superb, mature woman singer, with years and years of music, can bring to the solo parts that the very best boy soloist perhaps cannot, though obviously in the context of the original instrumental sound boys' voices blend very much better."

Harnoncourt: "No, I would not agree about that. I would say that the very best boy is musically at least as good as the very best woman. Reflect that Menuhin, when he was twelve, did his best performance of Beethoven's violin concerto, and Furtwängler said that he could not imagine a better performance of the work. He was twelve years old. He was exceptional. But all the really good violinists of our day who are now sixty or seventy years old were already at their summit at ten, twelve, thirteen. I don't believe music is an art where the performer's understanding (not the composer's) can only come when he is too old to perform."

Jacobson: "Provided there is a conductor who has the knowledge?"

Harnoncourt: "Who explains. But I am speaking of the natural musical feeling of a very gifted boy- I stress "very gifted"- when his vocal technique is as good as the vocal technique of the best female soprano. I must say that there are not many sopranos with a really very good technique- there are not hundreds of sopranos who can sing difficult Mozart really well, and I have never heard the Cantata BWV 51 of Bach sung well by a female or boy soprano. I know of some boys of thirteen years- few, but some- who are as musical as the best sopranos. They really have musical insight- it is not just that they imitate something, but they understand, and they understand directly, much more directly than an adult. You can communicate about music with such a boy. He understands the solution, and the importance of tension and relaxation in harmony, much faster than any adult. My experience is that there is no problem beyond the lack of quantity of such musicians. But you must remember that, in Bach's time, boys sang until they were eighteen years old, so there were many more boy singers. Every second boy learned singing, so they had a reservoir of thousands of boys."

Jacobson: "Then you have the same kind of interpretative teamwork when you're conducting an aria with a boy soloist as you would have with any other soloist? Why did you decide to use women soloists for your recording of the B Minor Mass (BWV 232)?"

Harnoncourt: "I decided that at the time because of the very Catholic aura of this work, but I would not say that it was a final decision. In another performance I would do it with boys, as I do performances with women of the St. Matthew and St. John Passions every year somewhere. It is not a dogma for me to use no women for Bach anywhere, or for this special work or that. There's a great dispute about whether Bach ever used women even in his secular cantatas. But for me this is a secondary question. In a documentation series like our recordings of the Bach cantatas, I think it is much more interesting to hear the soprano parts sung by boys, and this is the reason we do it so. I could agree in the same way with a very good woman singing the soprano parts, but I think it would not fit as well in the concept of the series."

Jacobson: "Is there any other loss you feel one just has to accept? You've obviously gained so much by going back to the original sound as far as you can establish it- do you think there is anything that you also lose?"

Harnoncourt: "The best possible quality is not enough. But this is a loss I have in any kind of interpretation of any kind of music- it's the loss between my imagination of the performance and the reality. There are cases when one can say, in a particular month, if we don't have a good boy to sing the soprano solo, this is a loss- I'm sorry that we don't have the best possible singer, or the same with any instrument. But this is not a question of principle, because if you work with an orchestra, and the orchestra has a poor first trumpet player, you have the same problem."

Bernard Jacobson, "Conductors on Conducting"
(1979, Frenchtown, N.J., Columbia Publishing, ISBN 0-914366-09-2) pages 65-67.

Harnoncourt / Leonhardt

Dick Wursten
wrote (January 5, 2002):
Recently much negative has been said about Harnoncourt &c.

I only can add my personal experience, which certainly is not unique. In my childhood there was Karl Richter and we had to listen to the veryextensive St. Matthews passion he brought. Unfortunately zapping didnot exist in those days... Then there were incidental recordings of cantatas, always the same... And always voices and sounds were massive. The 'sound'... be it Bach, Mozart, Beethoven or Verdi... - I exaggerate - was always the same. Orchestral manoeuvres in the dark deep sea of a big choir and 'yodeling' (opera-trained) soloists.

If I went to a performance, somewhere in the province, it was the 'regional orchestra, the regional oratorium-choir (60 - 100 people) and the soloists, trained to sing in opera's and Lieder, earned some extra money by singing Jesus or the evangelist.

Then a friend of mine borrowed me the records from Harnoncourts first St Matthew-passion, and really I didnot know what I heard. I didnot like it at all. So odd, so un-common, so different... Looking backwards It was the opening of a door, of the existence I was not aware of.

My gratitude is great. Harnoncourt and Leonhardt deserve a statue. they (and many others) succeeded in cleaning our ears from the romantic sound and music idiom which had permeated all music.

Many of the nowadays performances sound much better... But often there glory is that of dwarfs standing on the shoulder of giants...

Kirk McElhearn wrote (January 5, 2002):
[To Dick Wursten] I certainly agree that their radical change was essential and important. But, in retrospect, it sounds now almost as skewed as the Richter approach. Times change, and so do tastes.

Richard Grant wrote (January 8, 2002):
[To Dick Wursten] As Our former President - not a candidate for whom I voted - used to say "There you go again!" talking about the pre-musically-correct Bach as if it were an abomination before God rather than simply an alternative to your taste. I feel that I must point out for the sake of the younger generation who did not grow up with the Richter, Ristenpart, Scherchen, and (HORRORS!) Stokowski and Bernstein Bach that these were not performances beyond the pale of human sensibility and good taste. They were, in fact, the product of two hundred years of improved, i.e. more accurate, musical instruments and training and more robust and healthier human specimens. I recommend the Bach of the aforementioned apostates to all who have never heard them. I frankly prefer Harnoncourt, but perhaps as Wursten did with Harnoncourt et al. you will first find them strange and odd only, as he did, later to find them offering you an alternative view of Bach's art that you find more to your liking than the current vogue. As for you, Wursten, I have a group of friends in New York, mostly high romantics,(Beethoven, Wagner, Berlioz, etc) who regard the style of Bach performance you admire and champion as being testicularly-challenged (I'll translate if you require). I find their position as narrow and unacceptable to an open mind as I find yours.

Dick Wursten wrote (January 8, 2002):
[To Richard Grant] I'm sorry if I have offended you, or wrote some stupid things, but my sole intention was to speak something 'good' about Harnoncourt, because so many bad things about him were written lately. And he did not deserve that (I thought, silly me).

Of course you are right: there is no sacro-sanct pre-musically correct Bach.. and of course: de gustibus non est disputandum (but - strange - it is one of our favorite occupations)... but the Historically Informed Peformances were an enrichment (a new color in the palette) and in the beginning many people laughed at it and spoke with contempt about it (just like your New York friends), for me it was an eye-ear-opener to a renewed Bach-appreciation...

And of course: when I hear Richter and Dieskau together I am also deeply moved... They were top-musicians, with more musicality in the tip of their fingers than many... etc.. but whether Bach would have recognized.... AND NOW I STOP, because otherwise we start it all over again.

Richard Grant wrote (January 9, 2002):
[To Dick Wursten] I am sorry if the tone of my reply gave the impression that I was offended. I was not, I just wanted to point out for those who have perhaps been around these issues less often than we have and are not yet settled on how they feel that no alternative should be rejected out of hand and that all decisions should be revisited periodically to be revalidated for the individual "in the moment". Also, as a writer I feel that all art belongs to its creators only so long as it remains inside its creators. Like parents with their children, our interpretive control over our work, whatever it is, after we have "published" is diminished and must be. If anything I write should be remembered years after I am gone then it will and of necessity must be understood in the light of the time and circumstances in which it then exists. So I find the question would Bach recognize his work in a romantic setting to be interesting but irrelevant to the question of what value, if any, a romantic interpretation of Bach offers.

Yoël L. Arbeitman wrote (January 9, 2002):
Richard Grant wrote: "I feel that I must point out for the sake of the younger generation who did not grow up with the Richter, Ristenpart, Scherchen, and (HORRORS!) Stokowski and Bernstein Bach that these were not performances beyond the pale of human sensibility and good taste. They were, in fact, the product of two hundred years of improved, i.e. more accurate, musical instruments and training and more robust and healthier human specimens."
Certainly many of these were great musicians, Ristenpart to be sure. But others, e.g. Bernstein did not make a specialty of Bach or Baroque music and his Haydn and his Bach is simply Romantic and Classical. Stokowski has done monstrous harm to Bach bc. his garbage is still often played.

(SNIP) "As for you, Wursten, I have a group of friends in New York, mostly high romantics,(Beethoven, Wagner, Berlioz, etc) who regard the style of Bach performance you admire and champion as being testicularly-challenged (I'll translate if you require). I find their position as narrow and unacceptable to an open mind as I find yours."
Calling persons who prefer some HIP performances by questions concerning their sexuality is beneath contempt, whether your friends live in Texas of NYC. I wonder why you associate with them. That is a sad commentary.

Richard Grant wrote (January 9, 2002):
[To Yoël L. Arbeitman] Perhaps I associate with them because they have the kinds of minds and intellectual discernment that distinguish between mentioning a sexual organ to refer to a popular cultural concept regarding vigor and boldness and the feeling that any mention of a sexual organ automatically refers to sex or "sexuality". And, for the record, I think calling the earnest effort of a talent of the likes of Stokowski, however little it pleases you personally, "garbage" is itself beneath contempt.

Yoël L. Arbeitman wrote (January 9, 2002):
[To Richard Grant] That is my personal reaction to the prevalence of Stokowskian Bach and to Beecham Messiah with 1000 performers. I do not question Mr. Stokowski's balls. I really find that kind of metaphore about a musician your friends dislike odious. That's my view. Sorry if it offends you.

Richard Grant wrote (January 9, 2002):
[To Yoël L. Arbeitman] It does not offend me personally at all. Intellectually I find the attitude contemptible. Language should be used more carefully since it is one of the most common forms of communication. And on this subject lets put paid to what is apparently a continuing misunderstanding on your part about my mention of the word "testicular". If you will reread the original passage carefully you will see that the word DOES NOT REFER TO ANY PERSON AT ALL but rather to a style of performance that lacks "balls" if you will, at least in the opinion of one of the most knowledgeable and dedicated lovers of Bach that I know. He is also a more careful speaker than you are reader and would be appalled at your misreading and misunderstanding of what his description meant. Please read my original statement again and even if you don't agree with it at least have the decency to acknowledge that your hasty reading aoffense taking have slandered an innocent party (or parties since others share his view ) whom you neither know nor have reason to chastise.

Harnoncourt/Leonhardt Cantatas

Francine Renee Hall wrote (March 3, 2002):
Today I picked up a 4-CD set of H & L doing what is called "Famous Cantatas" on Teldec. Too bad there was no libretto, and that's surprising because it is top dollar. On the whole I enjoyed the set, and it makes me want to enter the cantata world where there are surprises, joy, excitement and reverence. But that's a huge investment. I'm lucky to have the entire Brilliant Classics Collection as a back-up to lead me to other interesting interpretations.

Continue on Part 4

Nikolaus Harnoncourt: Short Biography | Concentus Musicus Wien | Harnoncourt – Glorious Bach! (DVD) | Motets – Harnoncourt | BWV 232 - Harnoncourt | BWV 244 – Harnoncourt | BWV 245 - Harnoncourt-Gillesberger
Gustav Leonhardt: Short Biography | BWV 232 – Leonhardt | BWV 244 – Leonhardt | Inventions & Sinfonias BWV 772-801 - Leonhardt | BWV 988 Goldberg Variations - Leonhardt
Harnoncourt & Leonhardt – Recordings:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4
Harnoncourt & Leonhardt – General Discussions:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7
Table of recordings by BWV Number

Conductors of Vocal Works: Main Page | A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z | Singers & Instrumentalists


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