Gustav Leonhardt Plays On… (1928 – 2012)


A month ago, on December 12th, Dutch early-music giant Gustav Leonhardt gave his last recital at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris and all engagements for 2012 were cancelled. Yesterday, on January 16th, he died aged 83. A harpsichordist and organist, he formed and shaped the historically informed performance movement like few others, starting with his Leonhardt Baroque Ensemble (which included Nikolaus Harnoncourt) in the early 50s.

Together with Nikolaus Harnoncourt he recorded the complete Bach Cantatas, one of the great projects of the recorded classical music and one that inspired many early music performers to come. When Andrew Manze reminisced about taking out the scores from the “Alte Musik” LP boxes and reading along, a soft, content glow showed up on his face during a conversation last year. Leonhardt’s first (of three) recordingof the Goldberg Variations (1953) was one of the first such on a (real) harpsichord, his recordings for SEON remain among the best and most sought after to this day.

What was particularly refreshing about Leonhardt was his frank, un-ideological stance about matters ‘old music’. When an interviewer put to him the question of “One Voice per Part”, where the soloists take on the chorus duties, he simply huffed that it was rubbish and that the stubbornly continued argumentation that Bach wanted no more singers (as put forth by Joshua Rifkin et al.) was a ridiculous quarrel. On the question of women vs. boys for the high voices (where the hard core of OVPP-HIPsters seem much less concerned about historical accuracy) he simply said to prefer boys, but recommended not to stick to the idea when they weren’t truly good. “The rule that forbade women to go to church was not a musical one.”

No less important than his work was his teaching: Bob van Asperen, Alan Curtis, Richard Egarr, Pierre Hantaï, Ketil Haugsand, Philippe Herreweghe, Christopher Hogwood, Ton Koopman, Davitt Moroney, Martin Pearlman, Christophe Rousset, Skip Sempé, Andreas Staier are a veritable who’s-who of early music excellence. He is survived by his wife, violinist Marie Leonhardt-Amsler.

Giving in to raucous demand, the exhausted Leonhardt played an encore at his last recital, the 25th Variation from the Goldberg Variations. Now Bach finally gets to meet him.

Jens F. Laurson