Nikolaus Harnoncourt's greatest recordings

Gramophone Mon 7th March 2016

So many of Harnoncourt's recordings are highly regarded that it would be impossible to come up with a definitive list of his 'greatest', but those included here are all essential listening...

Bach Christmas Oratorio

Sols; Concentus Musicus Wien / Nikolaus Harnoncourt

(DHM)

'Without a hint of world-weariness, each movement builds on the experience of what has been heard before (a device encouraged by Bach in his emollient and atmospheric instrumentation, and the decisive connections between each cantata). Bachians who know Harnoncourt’s Passion recordings will recognise the distinctive southern European classical tradition which has been brought to bear on his recent Bach performances. Witness the soft-grained radiance and ease, whether Mass or opera-inspired, which eschews an inward-looking and parochial outlook. Indeed, Harnoncourt is unique in his decisively pictorial and luminous landscape (in the more perennial oratorio tradition), alongside a highly developed ear for charting the work with kaleidoscopic, if occasionally maverick character...' Read the review

 

Bach Sacred Cantatas, Vols 1-45

Concentus Musicus Wien / Nikolaus Harnoncourt; Leonhardt Consort / Gustav Leonhardt

(Warner Teldec)

'Teldec's cycle of all of Bach 's sacred cantatas in 45 volumes and on 83 discs has enriched the catalogue incalculably. Beside the more glamorous projects that have captured the attention in the sphere of period performance, the work of Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt and their colleagues in Amsterdam and Vienna has progressed steadily and with consummate musicianship. Each volume in this monumental project offers rich rewards and bears witness not only to Bach's unparalleled genius but to the remarkable consistency and imagination of the many performers who have contributed to it over the years.'

 

Bach St Matthew Passion

Sols; Concentus Musicus Wien / Nikolaus Harnoncourt

(Teldec)

'Harnoncourt’s re-visitation presents a unique statement, one which cannot fail to make an impression. Recorded in the sumptuous acoustic of the Jesuitenkirche in Vienna, one can detect the flavour of southern European oratorio, ebulliently theatrical, immediate and free-breathing, and without the austerity of North German rhetoric. What is recognisably perceived as ‘spiritual’ in the carefully coiffured renderings of Suzuki and Herreweghe has no place here. Harnoncourt’s religiosity is not imposed but stands rather in a lifetime of musical distillation...' Read the review

 

Beethoven Symphonies Nos 1-9

Chamber Orchestra of Europe / Nikolaus Harnoncourt

(Teldec)

'And now this—a new Beethoven cycle which manages to combine the shock of the new with an uncanny sense of familiarity. Harnoncourt doesn't pretend that what he offers is Beethoven as the composer imagined it. With the exception of the trumpets, the instruments are all modern, and while phrasing, rhythmic articulation, expression and balance reveal Harnoncourt's rigorous and passionate pursuit of historical truth, the results neither sound nor feel like anything offered under that banner before...' Read the review 

 

Beethoven Choral Fantasy. Triple Concerto

Pierre-Laurent Aimard pf Thomas Zehetmair vn Clemens Hagen vc Chamber Orchestra of Europe / Nikolaus Harnoncourt

(Warner Classics)

'Listening to the opening tutti on this joyful new Triple Concerto, I could just picture Nikolaus Harnoncourt cueing his strings, perched slightly forwards, impatiently waiting for that first, pregnant forte. This is a big, affable, blustery Triple, the soloists completing the sound canvas rather than dominating it, a genuine collaborative effort...' Read the review 

 

Beethoven Piano Concertos Nos 1-5

Pierre-Laurent Aimard pf Chamber Orchestra of Europe / Nikolaus Harnoncourt

(Teldec)

'The freshness of this set is remarkable. You do not have to listen far to be swept up by its spirit of renewal and discovery, and in Pierre-Laurent Aimard as soloist Nikolaus Harnoncourt has made an inspired choice. Theirs are not eccentric readings of these old warhorses – far from it. But they could be called idiosyncratic – from Harnoncourt would you have expected anything less? – and to the extent that the set gives a shock to received ideas it is challenging. It does not seek to banish all conventional wisdom about the pieces, but it has asked a lot of questions about them, as interpreters should, and I warm to it not only for the boldness of its answers but for finding so many of the right questions to ask...' Read the review

 

Beethoven Violin Concerto. Romances

Gidon Kremer vn Chamber Orchestra of Europe / Nikolaus Harnoncourt

(Warner Elatus)

'Rarely have I heard such consistently pure tone in this work as from Kremer. Harnoncourt may have expanded his sights beyond the period performance movement, but the lessons he learnt then are most imaginatively applied in his work with COE...' Read the review

 

Beethoven Missa solemnis

Sols; Chamber Orchestra of Europe / Nikolaus Harnoncourt

(Warner Classics)

'Choir and orchestra achieve wonderful precision and clarity of articulation; they are sensitive to the needs of shading, to the ever-shifting balance of the parts, and to the purpose of cross-rhythms which at first may look like anarchy. The soloists, all of them meeting their immense individual challenges, also work intelligently as a quartet. Directing it is what one would feel (even if no name were attached) to be a controlling wisdom: the tempos, for instance, all gain acceptance in relation to one another, and there is that essential interchange between the temperate and the extreme...' Read the review

 

Brahms Ein Deutsches Requiem

Sols; Arnold Schoenberg Choir; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Nikolaus Harnoncourt

(RCA Red Seal)

'Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s expertly engineered Vienna Philharmonic recording of Ein deutsches Requiem has been sitting in the vaults for some three years but its late release reveals no obvious reason for the delay: the performance is both beautifully shaped (especially from the woodwinds) and devotional in spirit. The closing “Selig sind die Toten” presents a warming richness of texture, the underlying rhythmic pulse admirably clear, while the sombre processional of “Denn alles Fleisch” builds well, the contrasting “So seid nun geduldig” (“Be patient, therefore”) lightened with the subtlest touch...' Read the review 

 

Brahms Symphonies Nos 1-4. Overtures

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Nikolaus Harnoncourt

(Warner Classics)

'This set gave me enormous pleasure...Harnoncourt’s Brahms is the perfect antidote to routine, predictability and interpretative complacency. I urge you to hear it...' Read the review

 

Bruckner Symphony No 5

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Nikolaus Harnoncourt

(RCA Red Seal)

'The ‘liveness’ of the live performance owes much to Harnoncourt – his persona fuelling the music-making not the concept, which is as it should be – though the superlative playing of the Vienna Philharmonic is also a factor. The light-fingered realisation of the exquisite string traceries is a constant source of wonder; tuttis are glowing and unforced. The hall of the Musikverein helps, too; with an audience present it offers a uniquely natural-sounding Bruckner acoustic...' Read the review

 

Bruckner Symphony No 9

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Nikolaus Harnoncourt

(RCA Red Seal)

'Like all great interpreters of the Ninth, Harnoncourt treats the opening movement as a vast tripartite structure – exposition, countervailing statement, and coda – which can be taken, as it were, in a single glance. Nor is there any falling off in the Scherzo or the great concluding Adagio, both of which are beautifully paced and expertly realised in terms of each new harmonic salient. In beauty of sound and accuracy and articulacy of ensemble, the Vienna Philharmonic matches, even occasionally surpasses, its own high standards in this work...' Read the review

 

Dvořák Symphony No 9

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra / Nikolaus Harnoncourt

(Warner Teldec)

'Harnoncourt’s Largo is something of a minor miracle, so much so that it all but monopolised a whole evening’s listening. I think especially of the string passage three minutes in and the gently stressed second-violin line at 3'06''. Undulating clarinets register against shimmering string tremolandos from 5'56'' and, beyond the beautifully judged approach to the Meno passage (bar 78), you suddenly hear quiet second-violin pizzicato chords (7'00'') that you almost never notice in concert...' Read the review

 

Dvořák Slavonic Dances

Chamber Orchestra of Europe / Nikolaus Harnoncourt

(Warner Teldec)

'None are better played than this Chamber Orchestra of Europe CD where pooled individuality sheds fresh light on virtually every piece. If you don’t know the music‚ Harnoncourt will make you love it. And if you do know it‚ he’ll make you love it even more...' Read the review

 

Dvořák Piano Concerto

Pierre-Laurent Aimard pf Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra / Nikolaus Harnoncourt

(Warner Classics)

'Straight to the top of the list for this one! Even on its best showings – Richter and Carlos Kleiber, Firkuny under Somogyi – Dvořák’s Piano Concerto has never quite managed to cast off its Cinderella rags. With this recording, the ball beckons, and there’s no time limit...' Read the review

 

Handel Timotheus

Sols; Concentus Musicus Wien / Nikolaus Harnoncourt

(Sony Classical)

'This is a recording which ticks so many worthwhile boxes that it’s difficult to know where to begin. It’s a great souvenir of a grand occasion, for sure; it’s a recording of a work that’s perhaps performed less often than a number of other similar pieces by Handel; to my knowledge, it’s the only one currently available that presents the work in Mozart’s 1790 arrangement; and it’s a score whose eventfulness plays admirably to Harnoncourt’s individual brand of theatricality...' Read the review

 

Haydn Paris Symphonies

Concentus Musicus Wien / Nikolaus Harnoncourt

(Deutsche Harmonia Mundi)

'Just about the most enjoyable and involving Paris performances you are likely to come across. The Concentus Musicus are on superb form, serving up a sound both clear and substantial, with horns a more than usually dark flavouring. And Harnoncourt is typically alert to every message the music has for us, drawing drama, humour, tenderness and colour at all turns, leaving the listener nothing to do but gasp, smile or glow in his wake...' Read the review

 

Haydn Orlando Paladino

Sols; Concentus Musicus Wien / Nikolaus Harnoncourt

(Deutsche Harmonia Mundi)

'There is a vivid sense of dramatic intensity in this live concert recording. It is historically absurd to employ a lute as part of the continuo team in a late-18th-century opera but Harnoncourt leads Concentus Musicus Wien through a fizzing theatrical performance. This is comfortably among the finest Haydn opera recordings...' Read the review

 

Haydn Die Schöpfung

Sols; Concentus Musicus Wien / Nikolaus Harnoncourt

(Deutsche Harmonia Mundi)

'Harnoncourt’s way with the work has not changed greatly – it is, as it was, scrupulously attentive to detail but guided also by an eye for the pictorial imagination of the score and a deep feeling for its sense of wonder and reverence...' Read the review

 

Haydn Die Jahreszeiten

Sols; Concentus Musicus Wien / Nikolaus Harnoncourt

(Deutsche Harmonia Mundi)

'Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s new Seasons trumps his 1987 recording (Apex, 4/87R) on virtually every count. The conductor’s affection for the spirit and teeming detail of Haydn’s celebration of an idealised rural world is again manifest. Yet pacing and characterisation now seem that much more natural, with none of the earlier recording’s idiosyncratic (usually slow) tempo choices. The opening chorus of “Spring”, for instance, distinctly lethargic in 1987, now has a gentle lilt, with a palpable sense of wonder and delight at nature’s rebirth...' Read the review

 

Mendelssohn Symphonies Nos 3 and 4

Chamber Orchestra of Europe / Nikolaus Harnoncourt

(Warner Apex)

'There's no disputing that Harnoncourt's Mendelssohn is essentially Mendelssohn, but one of the stimulating features of these performances is their frequent echoes of those older classical masters, I suppose one should expect a specialist to be aware, and make us aware, of the influences, but I don't sense any conscious underlining of them; they seem to emerge naturally from Harnoncourt's superbly 'right' tempos, modern orchestral forces ('classical' trumpets excepted) that permit the type of obviously 'right' internal balances that one associates with period performance, and yet have the familiarity of tone that enables us to relate what we hear to an accumulated experience of the classics on modern instruments...' Read the review 

 

Mozart Clarinet Concerto

Wolfgang Meyer cl Concentus Musicus Wien / Nikolaus Harnoncourt

(Warner Teldec)

'There are happy and shapely performances of all three concertos here, but the particular delight is that of the latest and greatest of them, the Clarinet Concerto, which Wolfgang Meyer plays on a basset clarinet – that is, an instrument with an extension allowing it to add four semitones at the bottom of its compass. This is the instrument for which the work was originally composed, although only a text adapted to the normal clarinet has come down to us. The reconstruction used here, slightly different in some of its detail from others I have heard, works very well, making the familiar text’s rough places plain and logical; and it serves ideally for Meyer, with his rich and oily bottom register...' Read the review

 

Mozart Requiem

Sols; Concentus Musicus Wien / Nikolaus Harnoncourt

(DHM)

'This is not, then, a Requiem which comforts and stirs in all the expected ways and yet the strength of vision is ultimately winning. Not least, Harnoncourt allows a curious and enigmatic undertow of human vulnerability to emerge, one which presents Mozart’s valedictory essay in a striking new light...' Read the review

 

Schubert Symphonies

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra / Nikolaus Harnoncourt

(Warner Classics)

'This, then, is as seriously pondered, coherent and penetrating a view of the complete cycle as we have had. Whether or not you feel Harnoncourt focuses too much on Schubert's darker side, you have to marvel at his ability to realize his vision. And if this great orchestra were not convinced by that vision, I doubt that it would have co-operated as wholeheartedly...' Read the review

 

Schumann Szenen aus Goethes faust

Sols; Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra / Nikolaus Harnoncourt

(RCO Live)

'What Harnoncourt does particularly superbly is steer away from the slightest hint of anything saccharine: the chorus of blessed boys being a case in point. He’s aided by the outstanding Christian Gerhaher, who is moving not only as Faust but in the Dr Marianus music too...' Read the review

 

Schumann Das Paradies und die Peri

Sols; Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra / Nikolaus Harnoncourt

(RCA Red Seal)

'Harnoncourt’s Bavarian RSO sound warm, though period awareness on the conductor’s part ensures sonorities that are light and pointedly attenuated. There’s a well sung Suisse Romande reading under Armin Jordan (Cascavelle, 4/90R) and a stirring 1987 Czech Philharmonic version under Gerd Albrecht (Supraphon, 11/09 – nla) with Karita Mattila as the Peri and Keith Lewis as the principal tenor – definitely my next choice after Harnoncourt...' Read the review

 

Schumann Genoveva

Sols; Chamber Orchestra of Europe / Nikolaus Harnoncourt

(Warner Teldec)

'Stage effects – mostly concerned with relative perspectives – are well handled and the sum effect is of a top-drawer Schumann set within an unexpected structural context. Opera buffs might complain at a lack of action, but lovers of Schumann will celebrate a work that is at once intimate, thought-provoking and gloriously melodious. A sure-fire first choice...' Read the review

 

Waltzer Revolution

Concentus Musicus Wien / Nikolaus Harnoncourt

(Sony Classical)

'The collection succeeds, though, not just in pioneering period performances but also through imaginative programming. There are several recording premieres among the Lanner pieces here, and the likes of his Malapou Galop are heard as never before. One way and another it’s a collection that demands the attention of anyone who thinks he knows how Viennese dance music should sound.' Read the review

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