The Bach cantatas recording project / Nicholas Anderson

We give here Nicholas Anderson’s text for his contribution on this theme at our memorial concert for Gustav Leonhardt on 19 April 2012 at St James’s Church, Piccadilly, London.

With the inauguration in 1971 by Gustav Leonhardt and Nikolaus Harnoncourt of a complete recorded repertory of Bach’s sacred cantatas almost all previously held convictions about performing Bach’s vocal music were thrown into the melting pot. The event, a momentous one in the history of Baroque musical performance, heralded a marked polarity of interpretative thought. Its rationale was either entirely ignored by conductors such as Karl Richter or, more interestingly, openly opposed by others, notably the Stuttgart-based conductor Helmuth Rilling. Rilling, in his own words attempted ‘a synthesis between the historical and Romantic approaches’ yet his complete recorded survey of Bach’s cantatas hardly differs from the mainly traditional performances of his south-German predecessor, Fritz Werner or the conductor and musicologist, Hans Grischkat.

The great Harnoncourt–Leonhardt cantata odyssey was by no means the first opportunity we’d had to discover the subtlety with which Leonhardt enlivened this vast expanse of Bach’s creativity. One of the most sought-after LPs of my school days, at least among the like-minded, was one containing two solo cantatas, BWV 54 and 170. The singer was Alfred Deller and the instrumental ensemble, the Leonhardt Baroque Ensemble. The personnel boasted several names that have played a prominent role in the ‘original instrument’ revival, among them Leonhardt’s violinist wife, Marie, the Austrian violinist Eduard Melkus, Nikolaus Harnoncourt and his future wife Alice Hoffelner, and the oboist Michel Piguet. The astringent sound of those repeated dominant seventh chords over a pedal bass thrill my senses as much now as they did when, with incredulity, I heard this early essay in the practice and sound of period instruments over fifty years ago. This sublime music-making, when Alfred Deller’s voice was at its peak, was my own moment of truth, my Damascene Conversion, and I know that several of my contemporaries feel much the same as I do.

From then onwards Leonhardt became a touchstone for all our many and varied forays into seventeenth- and eighteenth-century musical interpretation. Though we had to wait until 1971 to find him once again ‘at the wheel’ of Bach cantata performance there were several appearances along the way, when he participated in the performances of others, illuminating them with his organ and harpsichord continuo. In the early days of period instrument rehabilitation he enlivened cantatas with the Collegium Aureum, Concerto Amsterdam, performances with the Hamburg Monteverdi Choir, variously directed by Jürgen Jürgens and André Rieu1. If I had to choose one from among all these to illustrate Leonhardt’s outstanding imaginative flair in the art of keyboard continuo realization it would be the second aria for the goddess Pales in André Rieu’s performance of the cantata ‘Was mir behagt’, Bach’s so-called ‘Hunting Cantata’. It encapsulates so much of what was special about Leonhardt: refinement of taste, discretion in matters of ornament, unerring sense of proportion and modesty, with that delicate balance of needing to be noticed without a hint of over-assertiveness. And to these I would add a genial, even at times mischievous, but always tempered sense of fun.

I shall forever delight in an episode which took place in Bruges during the 1980 harpsichord competition. I was making a recording of the event for BBC Radio 3 and had taken a senior colleague, renowned for his confrontational manner, to present the programme. I told him we must have an interview with Leonhardt who was by far the most eminent of the competition judges that year. Somehow my astringent colleague had got wind of the fact that, inevitably, the judges were called upon once in a while to adjudicate the performance of their own pupils. To my greatest consternation he interviewed Leonhardt while he was having a late-ish breakfast, opening the conversation precisely as follows: ‘Am I right in thinking, Mr Leonhardt, that there is an international agreement whereby adjudicators at this competition are forbidden to judge their own pupils?’ After a short pause and with a wonderfully mischievous smile Leonhardt replied, ‘There is, or rather, there was’. My colleague was in no way mollified but there was no more to be said and Leonhardt resumed his breakfast in peace.

Such piecemeal recordings as those to which I have just made reference, and there were all too few of them, struggled to be heard against the larger choir performances of Karl Richter, Helmuth Rilling, and others. Richter had his staunch followers, and still does. His large choir was excellently drilled, his orchestra unimpeachable and his soloists, notably Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Ernst Haefliger, and – later – Peter Schreier, discerningly chosen. With the advent of Leonhardt and Harnoncourt, though, Richter sensed a growing shift in taste and a move away from an approach which had not fundamentally changed since the years immediately following the Second World War. Richter, Werner, Fritz Lehmann, and Felix Prohaska had all played a part in conditioning our ears to a certain approach whose post-Romantic properties were entirely at odds with what Leonhardt strove to achieve.

Most of us derive comfort from what we know and love best and it came initially as a shock to hear Leonhardt’s reading of the opening chorus of the cantata ‘Liebster Gott, wenn werd ich sterben?’ (BWV 8). I had grown accustomed to Richter’s performance which I found both poetic and contemplative. Then comes along my idol of many years, seeming to romp through the piece, knocking a full two-and-a-half minutes off it. What I had to do was to start from another viewpoint and to re-examine all that I had previously taken for granted.

There were disappointments, too, early on in the series, mainly concerning choral forces and brass instruments. But this was a learning curve not only for us, the listeners, but also for the singers, players and, dare I say it, directors. Leonhardt’s performances, perhaps more than those of Harnoncourt, strengthened over the twenty-year period between the inception and conclusion of the project. Instrumental playing became more refined and the introduction of the Hannover Boys’ Choir three years into the series proved to be an effective decision. Stealthily, Leonhardt was drawing us away from monumentality towards translucency and, in so doing taught us all to listen differently, affording us the opportunity to savour details in phrasing, in articulation, in declamation, and, above all in Bach’s textures. Some aspects of Leonhardt’s Bach cantatas come across with stronger authority than others, but it is not entirely fair to say, as many do, that the earlier performances lack the assurance which characterizes those later in the series. Indeed, I would cite the opening chorus of ‘Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam’ (BWV 7) as among the crowning glories of Leonhardt’s contribution.

The shared pioneering endeavour of Leonhardt and Harnoncourt does not and should not invalidate all that went before. Older performances of Bach’s cantatas, Passions, oratorios, and Mass will continuo to interest us on the strength of their soloists, if nothing more. To be able to hear and once to have seen the late Helmut Krebs in the role of Evangelist in the Passions provides me with great emotional fulfilment, as does the singing of Alfred Deller and the soprano Agnes Giebel. Leonhardt, I know shared my enthusiasm for the art of the two last-mentioned artists.

We remember Gustav Leonhardt first and foremost for his musicianship and in doing so we also become acquainted with the man himself: restrained, yet on many occasions passionate, wise and helpful, but never doctrinaire, kind and truthful, unshakeable in his Protestant faith, profound in his knowledge and generous in sharing it with all whom he felt a rapport and who showed an eagerness to do so.

Copyright © Nicholas Anderson 2012


  1. André Rieu (1917–92), father of the now more famous André Rieu (b. 1949).
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