Yesterday evening, Saturday March 5, 2016, conductor and cellist Nikolaus Harnoncourt left this world. He was an important part of the Sunday Bach cantata tradition my mother started in our family, and she was a great admirer of him. Even though my mother passed away more than five years ago, I feel she died a little more for me today, now that I know Harnoncourt is gone.
Sometime in the late 1980s, with my parents and my sister, I attended a performance of Bach’s Passion according to St. John which Harnoncourt directed in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. We had seats in the section behind the orchestra and choir, so that we could watch him communicate with the players and singers. I will never forget that. Afterwards, my mother–who was singing in a Bach choir herself at the time–said that it would mean the world to her if she could ever sing in a choir conducted by Harnoncourt. It never happened for her, but the combination of her saying this and me seeing Harnoncourt at work inspired me to join a Bach choir in my first year of college.
Even though Harnoncourt made an incredible amount of recordings (see his timeline for a list of all of them), there is nothing like seeing (an) excellent artist(s) live on stage. To see them work, interact, and to feel their energy is an experience you’ll never forget and which is worth so much more than earthly possessions. So if there is someone you admire but only know from recordings, go hear and see them live while they’re still alive! Make the effort. You will be glad you did.
Watch Harnoncourt conduct Bach’s Passion according to St. John on this video recorded in Graz, Austria, in 1985. It is a terrific example of the world class conductor he was. Don’t be put off by the 30-year-old sound quality, especially noticeable in the oboes in the opening chorus. It is only that bad in the beginning, the rest of the recording is a feast for the ears and eyes, not in the least because of the excellent performance (and singing technique!) by Kurt Equiluz as evangelist.
Listening to the Passion according to St. John is also appropriate in the order of things on this blog, since Bach was working on this passion during Lent in 1724, and revising it in 1725. And this way, come Good Friday (March 25, 2016), I can perhaps talk about the other passion 🙂
Wieneke Gorter, Sunday March 6, 2016.