An irresistible pioneering spirit emanates from the recordings collected by the Warner label on Friday’s New Gustav Leonhardt Edition. The 35 CD box mainly contains albums from that searching period of the historical performance practice of early music: the sixties, the early seventies. Although modern recordings sometimes sound clearer, more crystallized and technically more perfect, you can still taste the pure desire to rediscover and understand old worlds.
Especially in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, Gustav Leonhardt – with all the knowledge he had gathered about the composer – seems to rely more and more on the Bach he found in himself. “Leonhardt was well-read, but when it mattered, he trusted his musical instincts,” says Belgian violinist and orchestra leader Sigiswald Kuijken (77), who often worked with him from 1965. “The famous naturalist Albert Einstein once said: ‘Intuition is a gift from God, the mind a servant, but somewhere in time we have come to worship the servant and forget the gift.’ Leonhardt, a man of faith, never forgot that gift. His philosophy still resonates today.”
Energetic and attractive
Gustav Leonhardt was born in 1928 to a great industrialist and an Austrian violinist, who raised her three children musically. His sister Trudelies grew up to be a concert pianist and focused on music from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Her brother didn’t like that much, his heart went out to the beauty and eloquence of the Baroque (1600-1800), especially Bach.
Just after the war, Leonhardt studied in Basel, Switzerland, at the time the heart of the renewed search for original ways of playing in early music. There he also met his future wife, violinist Marie Amsler, who with her warm sound formed the heart of the Leonhardt Consort with whom they toured the world between 1955 and 1971.
Violaist and composer Wim ten Have (92) was part of that ensemble. “We ventured into terra incognita at the time. I still remember the rehearsals at their home, on the Nieuwmarkt, the heart of the Amsterdam Red Light District. The windows and curtains were closed to shut out all the noise. We switched to older instruments, bows and gut strings. It took a while before we had mastered it. Leonhardt taught us a lot about the 17th century musical ornamentation. And it worked. The static Bach we knew from modern concert practice became much more agile, energetic and attractive.”
For Leonhardt, making music sound “as the composer intended” to quote Bach meant not only Soli Deo Gloria, only to the glory of God, but also “to refresh the soul.” This playful character was what grabbed his student, harpsichordist Menno van Delft (58), early on. “My high school classmates put ABBA or Santana stickers on their diaries, but mine said Leonardt in adhesive letters. Fortunately, my father pointed out the missing h,” he recalls. “On the outside Leonhardt looked like a smartly costumed banker, but that was partly a theatrical play – inside him burned the fire of music, a passion that came out more and more clearly over the years.”
Although Leonhardt studied all the sources he could lay his hands on, his renditions still embody the spirit rather than the letter of the score. „School systems, methodology, dry book knowledge were in his eyes ‘work for pale noses’. For him, the spontaneous and experienced expression of the individual was paramount,” says Van Delft.
He was not the man to burden his musicians with long discourses on music, noted tenor Marius van Altena (83). “He started and took you into the world of a Bach cantata or a Monteverdi madrigal.
And we followed in his musical footsteps. During breaks from rehearsals he never talked about music, but rather about what we ate or his fast Alfa Romeo. “I hit 160 on the highway today,” he would say slyly. There was a bad boy in him.”
That character trait did not come to the fore in his funeral, which Leonhardt himself had tightly directed. Fellow organist in Amsterdam’s Nieuwe Kerk, Bernard Winsemius (77) accompanied the service. “I got to know him as a passionate organist. And he was also a religious man. This was apparent from the lectures and his sermon at the church farewell. Over his grave he held up a mirror to us stragglers about the good and evil in man. To conclude with the organ arrangement of the final chorus from Bach’s Johannes-Passion: ‘Ah Lord, at the end of my life let Your dear angel carry my soul in Abraham’s bosom.’”