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 Recording of the Week  Nikolaus Harnoncourt

In a few weeks time the cellist, early music specialist, author and conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt celebrates his 80th birthday. He was born in Berlin on December 6th, 1929, and grew up in Graz (Austria) where he studied the cello. At the age of 22 he joined the Vienna Symphony Orchestra where he remained for 17 years. However, at around the same time he founded the Concentus musicus Wien with his wife Alice. This specialist ensemble was largely responsible for launching the authentic instrument movement and their performances of baroque and classical repertoire quickly set the benchmark that subsequent groups had to match.

Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Nikolaus Harnoncourt

He left the Vienna Symphony Orchestra in 1969 as his conducting career was really starting to take off, and he made his conducting debut at La Scala, Milan in 1970 in a production of Monteverdi's Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria. The following year he started a joint project with conductor Gustav Leonhardt to record the complete Cantatas of J.S. Bach. It took nearly twenty years to complete and is still I think the only complete cycle that uses boys for the choruses and solos. Over the years he has made countless outstanding recordings with the Concentus musicus Wien (the most recent being one of Haydn’s The Seasons which came out earlier this year), but he also enjoys excellent relationships with a number of other leading ensembles – the most notable one being the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, with whom he made his multi-award winning cycle of Beethoven Symphonies in the early 1990s.

Although he is still closely associated with early music, his tastes are now so wide that you are just as likely to see him performing romantic or twentieth century music as you are baroque or classical. Indeed, his next project (which is released in three weeks time) is Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. Although at first it seems an odd choice for him, he apparently had a lifelong ambition to conduct it and, after unanimous acclaim and delight from critics and public at performances at the 2009 Graz Festival, the recording was the obvious next step. Like all his recordings he doesn’t just take a score and learn it, but delves deep into the history of versions and alterations, and tries to gain an understanding of the performance traditions and styles at the time of composition. This meticulous musicological approach results in a version quite different to others in the catalogue, and having only heard extracts from it so far I’m eagerly awaiting the opportunity to hear the whole set.

You’ll find a number of his greatest recordings in our current box-set promotion, including the Complete Bach Cantata’s set mentioned above. You can browse full details of these here. If you want to view the full details of the Gershwin you can do so via the link below, but there is no rush as it is still three weeks away and I’ll certainly mention it again on the day of release.