The international clarinet player Murray Khouri begins a series of reflections on great conductors.
Georg Solti burst onto the post-War scene at a time when many conductors were prevented from working until cleared by the Allied DeNazification Tribunal.
Like many young musicians of my generation, I came to Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung through Solti’s famous 1960s Decca recording with the Vienna Philharmonic. His image was of a dynamic, energetic maestro delivering vigorous punchy performances. Imagine my excitement then, when in November 1966 I saw him as the conductor of my first London Philharmonic concerts as a young clarinetist. In two concerts he was down to conduct Stravinsky, Brahms, Mozart, Schubert and Bruckner. Concert One was a Eurovision Television presentation beamed across Europe and BBC TV and Radio were there as well. Tension was high at the first rehearsal and as a newcomer I was doing my best to stay out of trouble. Solti and the LPO went back a long way. He’d made records with them in the early fifties and it was good to see him back conducting an orchestra he’d begun life with. We played our hearts out at the concert and in the Financial Times next morning David Cairns wrote, “When a Brahms symphony is performed as No. 1 was last night by Solti and the London Philharmonic, sternly disapproving thoughts about narrow, unadventurous repertoire, public feebleness and repetitive programs are abandoned, and one rejoices to find that a Brahms symphony can still be, is still an adventure”.
Once our first concert was out of the way it was time for Bruckner’s 8th Symphony. To the brass, “Smash it, my dears”. The music being projected ever louder. “Broader, more sound!” he kept exhorting a reluctant brass section. I felt it was all being controlled by an iron fist and that we were confined to the inside of a straight jacket. Everything was high voltage and I don’t think it is an overstatement to say that his working style was almost manic. Since Solti’s death in 1997 his reputation has taken a pounding from commentators all anxious to destroy the myth of his superman status. They allege that if he’d arrived on the scene at any other time than postwar Europe, he would have been consigned to no more than a music directors’ position in a provincial German opera house. They also suggest that he was ‘made’ by the Decca Record Company.
Solti was a product of the Budapest Academy of Music, his teachers Leos Weiner, Ernst von Dohnanyi and Bela Bartok. He was a first class pianist who in 1941 won the Geneva piano competition. His pianistic skill made the job of operatic repetiteur an easy one and it lead to his first conducting assignments at the Budapest Opera just before World War Two. At his debut he was unsettled all through the Third Act of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro by a restive audience to whom news had filtered through of Hitler’s annexation of Austria. Solti was Jewish and there was no secret of Hitler’s plans for racial cleansing. “Go to Switzerland until this all blows over,” his father advised and so it was that in August 1939 he left for Lucerne never to see his father again. He lived there for six long empty years, coaching the odd singer and doing a little conducting. The fledgling Decca Record Company was co-owned by Edward Lewis in the UK and Morris Rosengarten in Zurich. Solti was introduced to Rosengarten who agreed to some records with Solti partnering the violinist Georg Kulankampff. But Solti wanted to conduct even though he had only the slenderest experience.
After a trial, Fidelio in Stuttgart, he was suddenly appointed Music Director at the Bavarian Opera. Working under appalling conditions, he conducted 23 operas during his six year tenure and believed that he was performing well, given the conditions he faced. But shadowy politics now decreed that he could be disposed of since the show was up and running. Through another chance meeting he was invited to Frankfurt where he spent a fulfilling eight years developing the Opera House and conducting orchestral concerts. No other conductor has had his work so closely documented. His record producer, John Culshaw, was an able novelist and writer on music. Culshaw’s articles and two books trace the recording of the Ring of the Nibelung and Solti’s rise through Decca.
Through the early 1950s Solti was making the odd record in London, but when Decca shifted Solti’s work to Vienna, music lovers really began to take notice of the Hungarian conductor’s work. The post-war Vienna Philharmonic was a variable and conservative orchestra, full of players well past their prime, governed internally – the most anti-Semitic orchestra in Europe. Most of the players had embraced Nazism and their conductors Clements Kraus and Karl Boehm had a sorry record of collaboration with the Nazis. Imagine the shock then when a youngish, Hungarian Jew stepped to the podium and berated the players for rhythmic sloppiness and poor articulation. “They fought me, and I fought them back,” recollected Solti, but it was a battle never really won. “We are not a very ‘exactly’ orchestra,” he was told. The Viennese believed that imprecisions made for a warmer sound. They played so far behind the beat that the ensemble was constantly “swimming” and ragged.
But there were many pluses. The Vienna Philharmonic strings could deliver up a saturation of sound and blend that was unique, and its brass had a rich, broad tone quality at the opposite pole from the American orchestras’ razor attack. Recording Wagner’s great tetrology, The Ring of the Nibelung began in 1958. Rheingold was tackled first and when it was released created a sensation, climbing to the top of the Billboard charts. The sound was breathtaking. Nothing had ever sounded quite so splendid and the performance’s highlight was undoubtedly Gustav Neidlinger’s spine-chilling Alberich. His curse still curdles the blood:“If I have sinned, I have sinned only against myself,” and to Wotan, “But you immortal, are sinning against everything that has been, is and ever will be”.
Solti hustles through a lot of the music and cannot take a long term view of the drama. The brass attacks are vicious and the climaxes over-abundant. His Brunnhilde, Birgit Nilsson, was a Solti skeptic, later taking the trouble to attack him in public and in her autobiography for being too loud and aggressive. But in Solti’s defence, he was learning the work as he went, he’d never performed the complete work in the theatre. Probably the most representative example of the cycle’s best qualities are to be found in the last act of Siegfried. The sound of the orchestra fused with the voices of Wolfgang Windgasen and Birgit Nilsson to lift the music to an exalted level. Solti himself is the star of the Gotterdammerung set. Siegfried’s Rhine Journey shows the resplendent playing of the Vienna Orchestra at its best.
By the end of the 1950s, Solti was established in Frankfurt and the records were getting him noticed in the USA and England. Walter Legge, EMI’s musical tsar, had tried to sign him up but Solti didn’t trust Legge and wasn’t having any of it. He was to stay with Decca for his whole career. London was full of Hungarian émigrés who’d fled there during the 1956 uprising. Many were musicians, like Louis Kentner, Ilona Kabos, Peter Frankel and Georg Pauk. So naturally enough Solti found companionship with these people on his visits to London. At a dinner hosted by Ilona Kabos, Solti was introduced to Lord Drogheda who immediately said, “Solti, we want you to be the next Musical Director at Covent Garden”. Dogheda, together with David Webster, ran the house. And that’s exactly what happened. Solti began in 1960 and immediately imposed his brand of discipline on the company. Naturally enough he was hated by many used to the easygoing ways enjoyed with previous music directors.
He began the ‘stagione’ system whereby an opera is intensively rehearsed before being given multiple performances and then dropped from the schedules, then replaced by another. It wasn’t an easy path he had chosen. He was attacked by the critics and the audience was divided into pro and anti factions. I was in the audience for his first operas. Wagner’s Die Walkure was exciting beyond anything I could have imagined, marred by conflict with tenor Jon Vickers who walked out of the production, citing an overloud orchestra and insensitive direction.Verdi’s Othello was resplendent, graced with orchestral playing of an altogether superior level compared with anything heard previously. The opening storm music was breathless in its excitement.
The Covent Garden Orchestra called him the “screaming skull”, a description that stuck. I kept remembering this when I played in Mahler’s 9th Symphony directed by him. The piece is one of the most intense in the repertoire and its 90 minutes duration drains the last drop of energy from every musician. The First Movement is convulsed by three wracking climaxes, each one stronger than the last. By the time this Movement was completed it was as if there was nowhere further to go. Mahler called Movement Three ‘Rondo Burlesque and it may well be one of the orchestral repertoire’s most virtuosic and demanding pieces. He drove the orchestra to breaking point in rehearsal and performance at tempi foreign to most metronomes.
But looking at the broader picture, he was very good for Covent Garden and he did make the company a world class one. He nurtured young British singers like Margaret Price and Yvonne Minton and turned away from the John Sutherland – Richard Bonynge canary fanciers’ clique. He also showed no interest in pandering to the whims of Maria Callas. His greatest achievement was Schoenberg’s unfinished opera, Moses and Aaron. With great effort he learned the score and gave a series of accurate and compelling performances, assisted by a team of Soho strippers hired for the Dance around the Golden Calf, complete with lashings of red custard. Richard Strauss’s Electra was another sensation, the orchestra pit full to overflowing with an orchestra whipped to a frenzy at the climatic moments.
Solti bought a house in London and became a British citizen. He never got used to the climate he but liked quietly spoken Londoners, the wonderful Cockney humour and the superlative orchestral playing. His concert programs were a mixed bag. He was at his best in vigorous, rhythmic music and left English music well alone, except for the two Elgar Symphonies of which he left fine recordings.
He stayed at Covent Garden for almost a decade, conducting 37 different operas and being wooed by orchestras in Houston and Los Angeles. In London he was viewed with a certain amount of mistrust by the resident symphony orchestras and it wasn’t until the 1970s that he was made Chief Conductor of the London Philharmonic.
In 1970 he became music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In his autobiography, Solti describes the Chicago Symphony as a ‘sleeping giant’, a provincial band compared with orchestras of New York and Philadelphia. He makes light of the fact that its years under Fritz Reiner were legendary, still discussed in hushed tones amongst musicians, and that its recordings with Rafael Kubelik remain collectors’ pieces. Solti’s tenure in Chicago lasted 22 years. His prodigious energy meant that recordings flowed into the Decca catalogue at an astonishing rate. In nearly all of these you can hear his obsession with tight accurate rhythms and sharp, clearly defined balances, all bathed in bright digital light. He completed his cycle of Mahler Symphonies and recorded all of Bruckners. There were also complete Beethoven and Brahms symphonic cycles, and much Strauss. And after the Covent Garden performances of Moses and Aaron, he finally committed it to disc in Chicago – a major achievement.
He was still in Chicago when the call came from Wolfgang Wagner, Director of the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, asking him to direct a new Ring Cycle and he wondered would Solti be interested. Solti was and nominated Peter Hall, his favourite English colleague, as Director. But the project turned into a four-way struggle between Wagner, Solti, Hall and Bill Dudley, their Set Designer. One day the making of this 1980s Bayreuth Ring Cycle will be the subject of a gripping film, so fraught and chaotic were the preparations and performances. Hall wanted a naturalistic Ring, complete with running water and naked Rhine maidens who had to swim onstage. Dudley’s designs were produced late and often unworkable and Hall’s complete absence of the German language was another problem adding to the difficulties. Wolfgang Wagner’s intransigence and violent temper erupted against the cool understatement of the English team and Solti faced constant casting difficulties, rejecting singers not up to his high standards. They had foolishly agreed to producing all four operas in the same year, causing a rehearsal schedule which was unrealizable. “All good singers should be burnt and all bad singers burnt anyway,” swore Solti, after weeks of preparing Rainer Goldberg as Siegfried only to find that Goldberg was unable to remember words and music together. At the public dress rehearsal Goldberg folded up completely and was fired.
There was conflict in the orchestra as well. Because of heat and exhaustion deputies were sent which Solti quite rightly wouldn’t accept.All these crises brought out the best qualities of Solti. Working against the clock, facing reduced standards, working around the clock coaching singers in his rest time and acting as the go-between Hall and the explosive Wagner, who always invoked his grandfather’s name in the event of a dispute. But the problems intensified in the Solti/Hall Bayreuth Ring and predictably enough Solti withdrew from the production after the first year. The Decca engineers were there to record it all with the hope that this would have been a digital replacement for his original Ring recording, but is was not to be. The curse of the Nibelung Ring was again weaving its potent spell.It wasn’t quite his last gasp in the opera house. He returned to Covent Garden for performances of Traviata and at his farewell in Chicago mounted concert performances of Verdi’s Othello with Kiri Te Kanawa and Luciano Pavarotti.
Surveying Solti’s recorded output we see music from Bach to Tippett and just about everything put onto disc featured regularly in his concert programs, an admirable achievement. He’d started recording in the early 1950s with Haydn Symphonies, performances of vitality and energy which found favour with the critics and record-buying public. Entering the CD era in the 1980s, it’s pleasing to note that he recorded a series of Haydn Symphonies with The London Philharmonic: sparkling, vital performances which mightn’t have been to the taste of the authentic performance lobby, but none the less exhilarating listening.
It’s a different story when we come to the nine Beethoven and four Brahms Symphonies which are at the core of the symphonic repertoire and present a formidable challenge to all conductors. They don’t respond well to the ministering of virtuoso directors anxious to make definitive statements about the music. Given Solti’s dynamic, excitable nature, you might have expected him to go at the scores full-tilt. But he does no such thing. Taking the Pastorale Symphony as an example: it’s one work whose profound challenges lie in wait for the prospective interpreter. Problems of tempi, balance, sound quality and articulation lurk beneath a score of seeming simplicity. Solti seems in awe of the music, taking no risks, falling back on German stolidness, producing a laboured result. His literalness serves him badly. One example must suffice: The Fifth Movement called “Shepherds rejoicing after the storm” is a set of variations culminating in a prolonged cadence, crowning forty minutes of glorious music, Beethoven’s pantheistic worship of nature. It’s marked Allegretto, which is a marking a notch slower than Allegro. Solti plods through each section so that by the time the climax should arrive the movement has lost its impetus and climax is replaced by anti-climax.
It’s the same with the Brahms Symphonies. The music tightly-controlled – ‘corseted’ by a slavish adherence to the bar line. The aggressive attacks neutralize the flowing textures and produce rigid phrasing. It’s all about the law of diminishing returns. The effort here yields little, the spirit seemingly withered away. He seemed more relaxed in Europe enjoying a different relationship with a less servile orchestra. One of the most notable symphonic efforts in Vienna was his recording of the Schubert “Great” C major Symphony. It’s a symphony that seems to have brought out the best in many conductors. Solti’s drive and zest are tempered by the richness and roundness of the Vienna sound, producing a performance worthy of this great music.
It was on one of his Vienna excursions that he was down to record Richard Wagner’s miniature masterpiece called the Siegfried Idyll, written to celebrate the first birthday of Wagner’s child of the same name. It’s originally scored for just fourteen players, but is usually massacred by a full orchestra, against the composer’s wishes. Knowing that Solti occasionally played chamber music and accompanied singers, I hoped that he would respect the perfection and beauty of the Idyll in its original conception. And so he does. Conducting sitting down, he coaxes sounds of honeyed gold from a hand-picked group from the Vienna Philharmonic. In this performance every strand is audible, every nuance achieved, every subtlety present. The performance of a lifetime.
Solti left the Chicago Symphony in 1991 and spent his remaining years conducting in Europe at the Salzburg Festival and Covent Garden for a memorable Traviata with singers Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna. His record of new works and commissions in Chicago was undistinguished except for one instance – Michael Tippett’s Fourth Symphony received its premiere in Chicago and was recorded there. For me this is the last great British symphony and judging by the electrifying performance I think that Solti must have been of the same opinion. In this Symphony, Tippett gathers together all the sinuous streams of his music and creates a giant, protoplasmic organism complete with human breathing. There is no finer memorial to his art, no finer demonstration of all that was the best in him. Vitality, commitment, energy and a rugged honesty of simply always being himself.
THE LISTENING LIST
- Prince Igor Overture, Solti LSO, Decca 417689
- Slow movement, Brahms Symphony No. 1. Solti, Chicago Symphony, Decca 421074
- Das Rheingold, Solti, Vienna Philharmonic, Decca 414101
- Siegred Vienna Philharmonic Solti Decca 414110
- Wagner, Gotterdammerung, Vienna Philharmonic, Solti, Decca 414115
- Verdi, Otello, Vienna Philharmonic, Solti, Decca 440 045
- Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 9, CSO, Solti, Decca 410012
- Richard Strauss, Electra, Vienna Philharmonic, Solti, Decca 417345
- Edward Elgar, Symphony No. 1, Decca, 421387
- Bela Bartok, Solti, London Symphony Orchestra 436610
- Josef Haydn Symphony, No. 93, London Philharmonic Orchestra Solti Decca 417 620
- Ludwig von Beethoven, Symphony No. 6, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Solti, Decca 421773
- Franz Schubert, Symphony No. 9, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra Solti, Decca 460 311
- Wagner, Siegried Idyll recording as above
- Michael Tippett, Symphony No. 4, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Solti