Ludwig van (a)live ...

Eric Lamb's picture
published by Eric Lamb
on January 23, 2014

Concentus Musicus and Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Their countless recordings of the major repertoire of Bach, Mozart and Handel have inspired a wave of historically informed performances in orchestras worldwide. Harnoncourt and his comrades have been trailblazers and pivotal figures in forming a new outlook on orchestral performance, inspiring many over the years to re-evaluate how music is approached and understood.


Lucky for us, Harnoncourt has worked outside of the plush surroundings of the golden hall of Vienna and has inspired great orchestras throughout Europe, proving that his approach and musical sensibilities translate far beyond gut strings, natural horns and baroque flutes. His recordings with the Royal Concertgebouworkest, Berliner Philharmoniker and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe have changed the way we listen to Beethoven, Schubert and Mozart in the modern orchestral context. We are also grateful to Concentus (the band), for their dedication to their own playing, which has over the decades inspired students and orchestral musicians alike to be daring enough to pick up period instruments or to even play without vibrato, gasp!


What was once a revolution is now the norm. These days, most top quality music institutions offer the study of period instruments and historical performance practice. Students are entering university with a high level of proficiency on period instruments and after school are starting their own bands of misfit historical performance specialists. Many are choosing to not specialize but to rather be fluent in historical performance practice, adapting their musical and instrumental approach to repertoire while keeping their modern instruments in hand. The level of playing is higher than it ever has been.


The market is filled with examples of orchestras and ensembles that have most certainly found inspiration from the Concentus legacy. A glowing example of this is the new and vibrant recording of Schuberts third and fourth Symphonies by the brilliant young Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado and the Freiburger Barockorchester. What Heras-Casado and FBO manage to achieve with this collaboration is a beautiful, smart and straightforward recording without any overly obnoxious and laborious antics. It's both beautifully recorded and beautifully balanced across the orchestra. What I love above all is that it achieves what many recordings of period ensembles fail at achieving, a roundness and richness of sound despite acoustically inferior instruments. I would easily compare what they have managed here with Paavo Järvi’s bar raising Beethoven cycle with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen!


Now back to Concentus Musicus and my most recent experiences hearing them live at the Musikverein. It is clear to anyone with half of an ear that gone are the early trailblazers of the ensemble. What’s left is a new formation of musicians at every performance, a telephone orchestra. In spite of this, crowds flock to their performances to get a glimpse of the man and his ideas, Harnoncourt is a living legend after all. As a concert goer and musician, I too am always excited about what Harnoncourt has to offer but for me it's much more interesting to see him and less interesting to hear his orchestra in its present state. Has Harnoncourt outlived the legacy of his orchestra? My last two concerts were of Beethoven, music that requires a certain amount of attention to detail, which we have grown to expect from Harnoncourt (his Chamber Orchestra of Europe recording for Teldec is the greatest example of his masterful precision) but what in these two performances of three symphonies of Beethoven was unfortunately missing. In typical fashion, both performances were filled with spirit and élan, but haphazard intonation and lack of accuracy and precision obscured the seemingly enlightened musical ideas. Things happen and risky performances require close critique. With that being said, I am a huge fan of the new wave historically informed performance on modern instruments and the high level of historical instrumental playing alive and well today because of the work of Hanroncourt and visionaries like him.


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