In Praise of Sir Georg Solti

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I know you are asking why, at this point, it is necessary to have an article in praise of Sir Georg Solti (1912-1997). Let me count the ways. This year is the centennial of his birth. Many of his opera recordings are the definitive accounts of those works. On the Web site he is described as the greatest conductor of the 20th century. I would not single out one conductor as the greatest. But Solti was spectacular and radically influenced the way I hear music.

His conducting was incredibly expressive. No one had a more eloquent left hand  and when he made music in theaters and concert halls, the listener could do nothing but happily yield to him. There is extensive documentation of his performances, as he made more than 250 recordings, including at least 45 complete opera recordings.

There once was a time, not too long ago, when the major recording companies had almost exclusive contracts with the greatest conductors, who were expected and encouraged to record their accounts of most of the leading operatic and symphonic repertory. Deutsche Grammophon had Herbert von Karajan (1908-1989), Columbia (later Sony) had Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) and London/Decca had Georg Solti. Often, though not always, the maestros recorded with orchestras and soloists who were contracted to their same label. Karajan had the Berlin Philharmonic, Bernstein the New York Philharmonic and Solti, for a long time, had the Chicago Symphony and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. All three men recorded with other orchestras, especially the Vienna Philharmonic. There were other conductors who recorded extensively, but Karajan, Bernstein and Solti are my three tops in terms of reach and the awe that they inspired. In the broadest terms, you could say that Karajan was majestic and meditative, Bernstein emotional, and Solti the most alive to the energy and heart of the music.

Solti Remembered
In planning this article about Solti, I got in touch with Evans Mirageas, who is Artistic Director of the Cincinnati Opera and Vice President for Artistic Planning for the Atlanta Symphony. He is one of the arts executives in this country I most admire. From 1994 to 2000, Evans was the Senior Vice President for Artists and Repertoire at Decca Records in London. I asked him for a memory of Solti:

“I had the privilege of planning Sir Georg Solti's last four years of recordings, from 1994 until his untimely death in September of 1997, not long before his 85th birthday would have been celebrated. What I remember most vividly was his vitality and never-ending curiosity. At the time of his death, sitting on his desk in his London home was an oversized score of the St. John Passion, a work he was about to perform and record for the first time in his life!”

“My most treasured personal recollection comes from the time we spent in Budapest in the spring of 1997. If you read his biography the details of his conducting debut at the Budapest Opera are elaborated there in detail. But I was able to hear the story first-hand, standing in the empty pit of that opera house with Sir Georg as the storyteller. We were in Budapest for Sir Georg's first (and sadly only) recording in his native country. Ivan Fischer had graciously loaned his virtuoso Budapest Festival Orchestra so that Solti could three record works dear to his heart, all three of which were by his teachers, Zoltan Kodaly, Bela Bartok and Leo Weiner. It was a disc whose issue would be timed to coincide with Solti's birthday celebrations that fall. The BBC had sent along a film crew to make a documentary about Solti's life and they wanted a scene in the opera house, where his career began. We arrived early, to hear some auditions of local artists. Sir Georg could never refuse a favor to a fellow Hungarian and a noted pianist had asked him to hear his protegés!”

“Luck was on our side. The pianists were late and so Sir Georg took my arm and we walked into the pit, just as he did as an excited young man on the eve of the Anschluss in 1938 to conduct (as it turned out) his debut
and farewell performance in that theater of The Marriage of Figaro. As he recounted the dramatic story of his youth, he grew quite emotional, but filled with wonder and joy that he had escaped the Holocaust, lived abroad for the rest of his professional life and now finally (not unlike the stag in Bartok's Cantata Profana which he would record that week) was able to return home at last. It was a half hour I will never forget.”

Here is a segment from a documentary about Solti and colleagues recording Bartok. One of my greatest memories is hearing Solti conduct Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra.


Wagner, Mozart and More
Almost anyone who loves Wagner’s Ring Cycle (and I have just attended my 46th complete cycle) owns Solti’s landmark recording from the early 1960s. It was revolutionary in so many ways, one being the use of sound effects that one might hear on the stage but not on record. Solti consulted musicologist Deryck Cooke on making the performance more vivid and theatrical at a time when recording was still relatively rudimentary. This year, for the centennial of Solti’s birth (October 21, 1912), Decca will release a newly remastered 14-CD set that will wind up under the holiday trees of most Wagnerites. I also recommend the fascinating book, “Ring Resounding” by Decca producer John Culshaw about how these recordings were created.

Solti brought similar fleetness and drama to operas by Mozart, Verdi, Strauss and other Wagner operas. Listen to his orchestral playing on his recordings of Tannhauser and Lohengrin and it is hard to listen to anyone else, even if not every singer was ideal for their roles. I hope these are among the operas getting new releases in honor of the centennial.  I believe that Solti’s amazing Mozart and Strauss performances are set for re-release. His da Ponte operas (Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte) are elegant and vibrant while Elektra (with Birgit Nilsson) is breathtaking. These will be among the 100 recordings that Decca will release in new editions in September.

Solti Commemorated
Wherever you live or might be traveling in 2012, you might well encounter some commemoration of Solti. There will be special exhibitions at the Symphony Center in Chicago, the Musikverein in Vienna and at the Royal Opera House and Barbican Centre in London. More than 25 festivals, theaters and musical organizations are doing concerts and events dedicated to Solti. A highlight will be two performances by the World Orchestra for Peace, founded by Solti. The conductor will be Valery Gergiev, in many ways the heir to the Solti tradition and the maestro who has led every performance by the World Orchestra for Peace since Solti died. The first concert will be at New York’s Carnegie Hall on October 19 and the second, on his hundredth birthday, will be at the Symphony Center in Chicago on October 21. It will be televised, live, worldwide.

Solti died on September 5, 1997 on the same day as Mother Teresa and I remember my feelings well. Diana, Princess of Wales, was famously killed in a Paris car crash on August 31 shortly before that. While the media focused their attention on these two women who were known the world over, I was much more affected by Solti’s death. A similar thing happened in the Soviet Union on March 5, 1953, when Sergei Prokofiev died on the same day as Stalin. In both cases, the death of these great composers was overshadowed.

We must never undervalue the legacy of those who make music as they enrich us and make our lives better in ways that other public figures cannot. This is why we treasure the recordings of Solti and others. Here he is conducting all of Die Walküre in Bayreuth, live, on July 26,1983. Note the propulsive energy from the very beginning, the stunning dynamics, energy and drama. It is the great Solti at his greatest.