article 62: On the passing of Marie Leonhardt

When news arrived last night that Marie had died I was overwhelmed with unexpectedly intense grief. The long, complex history of our relationship, going back to 1971 with all its ups and downs, unrolled before my mind’s eye.

This morning I took out old LPs of the Leonhardt Consort. They confirmed my long-held opinion that she was the finest baroque violinist of them all. Listen to her ritornelli in the slow movements of some of the harpsichord concerti and deny it if you dare.

Her later technical decline under infinite pressures counts for nothing. Things once achieved and recorded stand as benchmarks forever. Nobody ever matched her combination of warmth, line, balanced phrasing and beauty of tone. Especially warmth. All those “virtuosos” who succeeded her, often after having had the inestimable benefit of her lessons, started the race to the bottom that continues to this day: speeding, rough bowing, heartlessness. Especially heartlessness. This isn’t surprising, given the cultural desert most of them grew up in. To paraphrase a recent Nobel Prizewinner: the times, they have changed.

Marie’s cultural roots went back to a tiny, ancient family chalet in the village of La Sage, high in a mountain valley in the Swiss canton Valais. An entrance so low I almost had to crawl through; tiny rooms, tiny windows – but solid, age-darkened wood, in perfectly-joined walls, floors and beams; ancient craftsmanship that had withstood centuries of the worst an Alpine winter could throw at them.

I visited Marie, Gustav and the girls there one sunny summer day. We walked through the woods to the tip of a glacier, which by now has undoubtedly receded beyond walking distance. Just so, the entire string culture which brought forth the Leonhardt Consort – and Alice Harnoncourt as well, who died three days before Marie – has disappeared from view, leaving behind bare gray boulders as far as the eye can see. I had the privilege of playing many duo-concerts with both of them, back in another lifetime. Their like will be seen no more.

July 24, 2022

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