Gustav Leonhardt – a tribute
The death of the distinguished harpsichordist and director Gustav Leonhardt in Holland on 16 January closes one of the most important chapters in the history of European Music over the last half century. He was perhaps the last living ‘true pioneer’ of historically informed performances of Bach, daring to challenge accepted thinking from the 1950s as Europe emerged from the austerity of the war years and into a new musical age that, along with others similarly curious, brought us ‘Bach in its original form’. With his wonderful keyboard dexterity and insight, it was a facet he brought to his performances that he never lost.
In 1996, Leonhardt accepted the first of two invitations from me to come to our Bachfest. The first was to direct Steinitz Bach Players at the London Bach Society’s 50th anniversary concert – two seasonal Bach cantatas and a Lutheran Mass – to be given in the Priory Church of St. Bartholomew-the-Great, West Smithfield on Reformationsfest (31 October). We met to discuss the programme and its regime of rehearsals well in advance - BWV 180 and the Mass in A plus BWV 115, a great Leipzig cantata and one that Leonhardt had never directed before. While the interpretations were naturally different from those of my husband, his approach, how he thought through each recitative and aria and planned his rehearsals accordingly was exactly what I was used to. Placing the performers and music in such an historic setting prompted a phone call to his wife Marie, a distinguished violinist in her own right, to fly over. She did. BBC Radio 3 thought the same – although Leonhardt was not too keen to have cables and microphones cluttering up the chancel and generally getting in the way. He was finally pursuaded to allow a ‘discreet’ presence by Radio 3 when told that the concert was an important occasion for all concerned. It worked out very well.
Leonhardt’s second appearance with us saw him in his element. It was at Bachfest in 1999, a harpsichord recital that included some rarely heard early keyboard works by Bach (c.1700), given by candlelight in the chancel of St. Bartholomew-the-Great. This time he could not be pursuaded to allow a broadcast, but he did agree to be interviewed by my colleague Lindsay Kemp for Radio 3. It was a stunning recital of some fairly recherché repertoire chosen to presage Bach’s 250th anniversary year, given by an artist who was not remotely concerned about anything except the music he was playing, its origins and his continuing curiosity about it. The audience, a distinguished one, was merely there. Between the rehearsal and recital Leonhardt rested in the modestly furnished Vestry wearing his trademark mittens. Just before he was due to come and play, I entered the Vestry to give him his concert ‘call’ and found Leonhardt complete with mittens warming his hands around a candle he had lit, shunning the use of the modern electric fire standing by. That alone sums up a lot about him.
We send to Marie our fond remembrance and condolences, with thanks for the life and work of Gustav Leonhardt, true pioneer and kindred spirit. Margaret Steinitz
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