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Wednesday 28 September 2016

Austrian conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt dies at 86

Published 06/03/2016 | 14:11

Conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt in rehearsal in Vienna in 2003 (BBC/PA)
Conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt in rehearsal in Vienna in 2003 (BBC/PA)

Austrian conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, whose career first focused on a search for authenticity in baroque and other old music and later expanded into masterful interpretations across the classical spectrum, has died aged 86.

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His death on Saturday was announced by his wife, Alice Harnoncourt, who said he "passed away peacefully, surrounded by his family". No cause of death was given.

Harnoncourt's concern for historical detail was well-known and he thought of his conducting as alive and romantic, not a relic of history.

His recording of Bach's St Matthew Passion won a Grammy Award in 2001, one of many awards recognising his unrelenting drive for perfection that put him on a par with other great post-war Austrian conductors Herbert von Karajan, Karl Boehm and Carlos Kleiber.

While remaining true to his love of Haydn, Mozart and their predecessors, all of whose works laid the foundation for later masters of classical music, he later expanded his repertoire to include 19th-century opera favourites such as Verdi's Aida and individually accented interpretations of works by masters as varied as Beethoven, Schubert and Richard Strauss. In 1999, Switzerland's Neue Zuercher Zeitung labelled him "the protagonist of the new expressionism".

As a cellist in 1953, Harnoncourt founded the Concentus Musicus Wien, a platform for his work on renaissance and baroque music which uses period instruments and will remain his calling card. Early performances were mostly private and critics unused to the sounds of the original instruments used by the ensemble were initially hostile.

But the troupe's reputation grew, especially after a recording of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos in 1962. The repertoire expanded into Monteverdi works. First tours of the United States and England came in 1966, and of Germany two years later.

Leaving his cello behind, Harnoncourt made his debut at the conductor's rostrum in 1972 with Monteverdi's Il Ritorno d'Ulisse In Patria at the Piccola Scala in Milan.

A few years later, his breakthrough was complete after teaming up with French director Jean-Pierre Ponelle on a celebrated cycle of Monteverdi operas performed at the Zurich Opera House on period instruments, starting with L'Orfeo in 1976.

Harnoncourt is survived by his wife, three sons and a daughter.

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