SOLTI: THE MAKING OF A MAESTRO • Georg Solti, cond; Chicago SO;1 Bavarian RSO2 • ARTHAUS MUSIK 2087898 (3 DVDs: 270:00) A film by Peter Maniura.
1BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 1 in C. 1SCHUBERT Symphony No. 6 in C. Symphony No. 8 in b, “Unfinished.”Read more2SHOSTAKOVICH Symphony No. 9 in E?. 2TCHAIKOVSKY Symphony No. 6 in b, “Pathétique.” Live: 9/5/1978 (Beethoven); 12/5-6/1978 (Schubert); 1990 (others)
This 1997 documentary on Solti, made (ironically) during the last year of his life, shows the conductor talking frankly and openly about his entire career. Like so many Hungarian conductors (excepting Ormandy and, possibly, Doráti), Solti was a nit-picking perfectionist who drove his musicians hard—one of the last conductors in the world who was allowed to get away with such rehearsal traits. One of his musicians, early on, says that she enjoyed the challenge, that working with Solti was like “playing for Mephisto” (his nickname among orchestral musicians was “the screaming skull”). Considering how close he was to death at the time, it was rather an irony to see him conducting in front of a datebook that said “Sir Georg Solti Schedule, 1990-2000.” That’s how artists are booked nowadays, in 10-year spans, sometimes beyond their deaths. Heck, management doesn’t really care if you die, as long as you make the gig!
Sometimes we only see the places he grew up or worked at in photos; sometimes they actually sent Solti back there to point out landmarks and talk about them. He explains how attending a concert in which Erich Kleiber conducted the Beethoven Fifth Symphony changed his life and made him decide to become a conductor; how he was able to get a small grant to go to the 1937 Salzburg festival as a répétiteur, which is where he met and worked for Toscanini; how later, after the Anschluss when Solti lost his job in Vienna for being Jewish, Toscanini offered to help him with money to go back home, but a letter from his mother told him not to return because things were getting worse; then how he struggled both socially and professionally for five years, alone as a Jew in Nazi-infested Europe, just trying to survive while thinking about the career that might have been. So it was a tough road to the top for him, and he was always grateful to the people who helped him get there.
Backing off from conducting for the time being, Solti entered the 1942 Geneva piano competition. He memorized all the pieces so he didn’t bring any music, but nerves caused him to forget the fugue in Beethoven’s op. 110 piano sonata when requested to play it. Nevertheless, he remembered the Bach Partita and the other three works he had memorized, and so was able to win first prize in one afternoon! After the war, he wrote a letter to an opera house in Hungary saying that he was homesick and wanted to come home and work there, but received a letter back saying no thanks, we already have all our conductors. Solti was so upset about this that he “wanted nothing to do with Hungary, neither the work nor the people…I cut it off.” Another irony. Had he gone back, he’d have come under the thumb of the Soviets when the tanks rolled in, the same way poor György Cziffra was. By chance he learned that a fellow Hungarian, now in the American army, had become music director in Munich. He sent him a letter asking “Do you think you can use me?” He said yes, we can use you, come. He sent a jeep to drive Solti to Munich, but in his heart Solti was scared to death to go into Germany. The sight of bombed-out Munich, in which even “the opera house was a total shambles,” scared him, “but this bloody ambition in me to be a conductor kept me going.” This was the real turning point of his career.
He was lucky that the Munich situation was in such a shambles, because this way it took weeks to get a production together rather than just four or five days, and this allowed the 34-year-old Solti to learn the scores of the operas he was conducting. Later he told Hans Hotter, “I owe you a lot, because you were patient with me, and I am honest enough to admit that I didn’t know that many operas.” Yet as Hotter says, “His authority was based on his natural ability to conduct.” His very first production was Carmen in early 1947. As soon as the audiences heard the first notes of the overture, they “nearly jumped out of their seats.”
During the late 1940s, he also conducted orchestral concerts with the Bavarian Radio Orchestra, which is one reason that live performances with the latter-day version of this group are included on DVD 3. We are lucky enough to get a glimpse of Solti’s first appearance on film, a snippet from a June 1949 Salome. Sadly, the singers are not identified. Strauss heard of his success and came to see Solti’s production of Der Rosenkavalier in June. He was old and infirm—he couldn’t even see the trumpets or the horns in the back of the orchestra pit—yet he conducted the act II finale with great style…and there’s a film clip of that, too!
From there we jump forward to the recording of the Decca Ring, 1958-65, though the clips come from Götterdämmerung in the film The Golden Ring. It’s a treat to see Gottlob Frick and Birgit Nilsson singing in these clips. Then we go to his 1961 engagement at Covent Garden, where Solti announced that he wanted to make them “the greatest opera company in the world.” Sub-principal flautist William Morton tells of what an exciting time it was and how much they appreciated Solti’s efforts. We see a clip of Solti rehearsing a 1963 Nozze di Figaro with Tito Gobbi and Geraint Evans. But things weren’t altogether rosy: audiences complained that they couldn’t hear the singers, that the orchestra was too loud, and there was a campaign to get rid of him. Andrew Porter says that as soon as a new poster announced a new Solti production, graffiti would appear across it saying, “Solti must go.” Someone scratched his car with a key; others bought fresh produce (after all, this was Covent Garden!) to throw at him. Once someone ingeniously combined the two, rolling a cauliflower painted with the words “Solti must go” across the footlights. Yet his 1965 production of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron was the one that really shocked Britain, with its orgy scene in which director Peter Hall used six strippers but “put tape across their nipples” to make what he claimed was a “tame orgy.” But at least one newspaper celebrated: “Hooray! For this First-Class Orgy!”
We then fast-forward to one of his last productions, the 1997 Simon Boccanegra with Kiri Te Kanawa, who was frightened of him at first but then came to find him amusing because he resembled her father and she saw “the funny side of him.” Then, finally, about 17 minutes before the end of the film, we finally get to his years with the Chicago Symphony (remember, this is a British film), which he “fell in love with at first sight.” Trumpeter Bud Herseth explains that when Solti came the orchestra had been “demoralized” for a number of years, for several reasons. At his first rehearsal, one of the flautists stood up and said, “I can’t take this any more!” and walked out. Solti could tell the situation was tense, and so told them to make peace immediately or he’d walk out. They made peace, and the CSO again became a first-class orchestra. And now I understand why critics credited him with making it a world-class orchestra, as he was the first to have them tour other countries. Fritz Reiner never did.
A personal note. Though I didn’t see Solti himself conduct it, I did see the CSO during his tenure in the early 1980s, conducted by János Ferencsik, and they were indeed a “perfect orchestra.” It wasn’t just studio tape-splicing. Not one instrument in that orchestra cracked or missed a note. They were technically flawless, and their musical style was superb as well. Herseth makes an interesting observation that coincided with what I myself heard in his recordings and performances of the late 1970s and then the 1980-1995 period, which was to me his greatest, a growing warmth and relaxation in his music-making. Herseth attributes it to his happy home life and the coming of his two daughters from his second marriage.
Since Solti was still alive when the film was finished, it ends on an unresolved chord, if you will, but a positive one. You come to respect this man and appreciate the hard work and dedication he brought to everything he did, regardless of whether or not you like everything he did (I don’t). “There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end, and one is drawn through the great mind of the music,” one woman musician says. And it’s true. “My life is constant traveling, a constant journey,” Solti says, “but also a constant learning.”
I never cared much for Solti throughout the 1960s except for his 1967 recording of Verdi’s Don Carlo with Tebaldi, Bergonzi, and Fischer-Dieskau, because his sense of rhythm was usually logy and his tempos too slow. This was what marred his recording of Aida with Price, Gorr, Vickers, and Merrill, and this is what marred the famous Ring operas with the sole exception of Das Rheingold, which came out fairly well. He produced an outstanding version of Tannhäuser around 1971, but then produced heavy-handed versions of Fliegende Höllander, Die Meistersinger, the Mahler Eighth Symphony, and the complete Beethoven Symphonies before amazingly lightening his sound in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Then came a series of truly outstanding recordings, such as his Mahler Ninth Symphony and the operas Le nozze di Figaro, Lohengrin, Un ballo in maschera (the 1985 version, far better than his 1960 recording with Bergonzi), and his second, light-hearted Meistersinger (with Mattila and Heppner from 1995). His Don Giovanni with Bryn Terfel is pretty good but not as fine in the more romantic non-HIP style as Karajan’s 1985 recording. In short, when he was good Solti was outstanding, but the great moments came far too few for me to place him in the upper echelon. His penchant for stiffening up the rhythm led to some awkward, albeit exciting, readings such as his recording of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron.
These symphonic performances are split between 1978 (Beethoven and Schubert) and 1990 (Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky); thus we can actually compare and contrast the two Solti “eras.” In both one hears the famed Solti sound, an almost solid mass of strings-winds-brass perfectly meshed together (critic Joseph Horowitz, in a disparaging manner, likened it to Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound”), but also old-fashioned tempos of the Konwitschny-Kempe-early Karajan school. Compare, for instance, his pacing of the Beethoven First with the more modern, score-tempo versions of David Zinman or Michael Gielen. Solti’s first movement runs a monstrous 9:46 compared to Gielen’s 8:33, the second 9:00 to Gielen’s 7:04, the third compares at 4:06 vs. 3:18 and the last movement 7:00 to 5:49. And if you think Toscanini was faster yet, you’re wrong, certainly not all of the time. Arturo’s La Scala first symphony from the July 7, 1946, concert clocks in at 8:40, 6:35 (the only movement faster than Gielen), 3: 24 and 6:14. The Schubert “Unfinished” symphony presented here is even slower than Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who took a very leisurely (for me) pace but still moved things forward. The timings are I: Solti 15:35, Harnoncourt 14:56; II: Solti 15:14, Harnoncourt 11:28, but here, particularly in the hyper-emotional first movement, Solti is in his element. It’s the second movement where he drags things out to ridiculous lengths and employs the same kind of rhythmic stasis that ruined much of his Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung. His performance of the Schubert Sixth (the “little” C Major) is not too far off from Harnoncourt in tempos, but he manages to make it sound lethargic and featureless, losing all of the music’s charm.
On DVD 3 we fast-forward to 1990 in performances with the Bavarian Radio Symphony. Here is a somewhat different Georg Solti. The Shostakovich Ninth is light, lithe, and filled with humor, although the famed thick “Solti sound” mitigates somewhat its use of a chamber orchestra. The second movement does sound a little ponderous, but I’ve heard a few other recordings of this work and this movement always sounds a bit lumpy. I almost feel that was Shostakovich’s plan. After this, we come to what was, for me, the highlight of the entire set, a simply spectacular, dead-on version of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony. It is here that we can appreciate how Solti modified his conducting style. The first movement is as emotional as his first movement of Schubert’s “Unfinished,” but there is better balance and forward flow and less of the over-angst bombast of yore. In some ways, in fact, this particular performance of the first movement is similar to the Toscanini-Philadelphia Orchestra recording, my firm favorite of all versions. Solti grasps hold of the work’s structure and brings out its balance with alacrity. The second movement bogs down, but only a little, in the more lyrical middle theme, but the all-out, virtuosic third movement is rousing and his heartfelt reading of the last movement lacks nothing in feeling but does not wallow in bathos.
Peter Maniura’s documentary was originally released on DVD in 2002 by eOne films, but I couldn’t find any earlier release of the performance videos. If you’d like an interesting video traversal of Solti’s career, you might want to track down a used copy of the eOne issue, but if you’re a Solti enthusiast I’m sure you’ll want this entire set.
Bitter disappointmentJanuary 29, 2013By brian Purdue (Bayswater, W.A.)See All My Reviews"Despite the eulogy of Lynn, I was not impressed with Sir George. The music was very mechanical and lacked soul. Bernstien was a far better conductor and even poor old Stokowski showed more emotion. Music is for the soul. Solti wanted and got mechanical perfection. I gave the set away to a friend and he brought it back to me the next morning. Enough said?"Report Abuse