Do you know this performance of the St. John Passion conducted by Karl Richter?” a friend wrote. “Good for Lenten reflection, I think.” The message arrived on March 5, the one-year anniversary of the death of Nikolaus Harnoncourt—the Austrian conductor whom I had long favored over Richter, his rival.
In fact I had grown up on Karl Richter and loved his Bach recordings: the Christmas Oratorio, the Passions, the Brandenburg Concertos and Orchestral Suites, and so on. I went to a number of concerts with Richter and his group in Salzburg, which was a short distance from Richter’s base in Munich. I remember in particular an organ recital he did in the main hall of the Mozarteum.
I became aware of the clash between Harnoncourt and Richter, right around the time when my own musical taste became more mature and critical, at age fifteen or sixteen. I was a Richterian; Harnoncourt struck me as harsh and uncouth. A friend from Vienna, ten years older than I, had attended many Harnoncourt concerts in Vienna and become a partisan. We argued vigorously, and I did not yield. But when Harnoncourt, beginning to be well known, was hired by the Mozarteum, I attended his opening lecture—a critique of Richter’s approach to Bach. It changed my aesthetics.
Harnoncourt argued that Richter was unreflectively following the default mode, which is to play on modern instruments according to the musical techniques and aesthetic standards that happen to be dominant in the musical conservatories at the present time. Richter’s instruments, techniques, and standards were those of the late-Romantic instrumental, vocal, and esthetic tradition.
Read more at First Things.