A Portrait of Georg Solti on his Centennial

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Richard S. Ginell - From Out of the The WestBy Richard S. Ginell: From Out of the West

It used to be said that among the living conductors in the 1980s, the three that were at the summit of the profession were Herbert von Karajan, Leonard Bernstein and Sir Georg Solti.

They departed one by one – Karajan in 1989, Bernstein in 1990, and Solti supposedly had the mountaintop all to himself until his unexpected death in 1997.

It was unexpected because even at 84, Solti seemed like an inexhaustible ball of energy; no one could imagine him being ill.And then when he died, few noticed because it happened only five days after Princess Diana was killed, with the news media focused on that event and on hardly anything else.

Since then, Solti has been the least celebrated of the three.  For some, his pioneering studio Wagner Ring cycle – winner and still champion on my scoreboard – had become his only claim to greatness; the rest of his large legacy was dismissed as too one-dimensionally fierce and overdriven.  Perhaps he simply exhausted people.  I saw him conduct his Chicago Symphony six times in the 1980s, and I remember how ceaselessly physical his conducting was, seemingly beating four or eight times in a measure when twice would have been enough. But what a mighty sound Solti could get that orchestra to make; it turned many a jaded head in the hall, one way or another. I approached Mehli Mehta at one concert for his opinion, and he typically didn’t mince words. “Tremendous orchestra.  Awful conductor.”

Yet as soon as Solti’s 100th birthday came around in October, there has been a sudden explosion of commemorative activity.  One such artifact is a biographical film on DVD and Blu-ray, “Solti: Journey of a Lifetime” (C Major) by director Georg Wübbolt, whose previous film was a fascinating probe into the strange personality of Carlos Kleiber (shouldn’t he have been on that short list, too?). With Solti, the impression Wübbolt gives is of a man who struggled every inch of the way up the ladder against roadblocks of anti-Semitism, musical politics, and perhaps his own driven perfectionism.  He couldn’t go home to Hungary after the Nazis took over, could only work in Switzerland during the war as a pianist, ran into intrigue in Munich after the war, angrily resigned from the Los Angeles Philharmonic before he could lead a single concert as music director (this is not dealt with adequately in the film), and didn’t achieve superstar status until he reached his 50s. And even after that, there were problems – friction in Paris, a sole controversial appearance in Bayreuth in 1983, not being asked to succeed Karajan in Salzburg. We get the impression that the only two places where Solti was fully accepted were London, where he revived Covent Garden and was knighted – and Chicago, where he turbocharged the Chicago Symphony. Not even Vienna, the city in which the Ring that would make him famous was recorded. He once said of the Vienna Philharmonic, “They hated me. For many years, I used to say that my favorite street in Vienna was the road to the airport.”

Many of the interviews are conducted in German, including those with Solti himself, and the small English subtitles often fade into the background, making them difficult to follow. The music video excerpts in the film, though, covey the overwhelming force of Solti’s personality far better then mere words.  Half of the playing time is taken up by Solti leading the CSO in nearly an hour of Russian music Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina prelude, and Prokofiev’s and Shostakovich’s First Symphonies; the latter is tense, driven, and as always with Solti and Chicago, superbly played.

Decca has observed the Solti centennial with a ton of reissue boxes, but there will be something new in the pile – a 2-CD set “Solti – The Legacy” that ransacks the vaults for unissued broadcasts, rehearsals and outtakes dating back to the 1930s (some of the material, like the two Britten excerpts, has surfaced previously).  Problem is that this set is hardly a definitive portrait as it is overwhelmingly slanted toward opera, with the focus on the singers, not the conductor.  I’ve only heard an advance download (it will be out Dec. 4), but it was enough to reveal some interesting tidbits – three short peeks at a studio rehearsal of The Marriage of Figaro with Solti in hyper mode, at last a too-brief passage from the Immolation Scene from that troubled Bayreuth Ring, and most fascinating of all, Toscanini conducting “Eine Mädchen ober Weibchen” from The Magic Flute in Salzburg 1937, in which Solti was drafted to play the glockenspiel!  It sounds like he’s trying to smash the instrument to bits – as such, the earliest extant example of the Solti volcano.