Solti to the brass: Smash it, my dears!

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

  1. Prince Igor Overture, Solti LSO, Decca 417689
  2. Slow movement, Brahms Symphony No. 1. Solti, Chicago Symphony, Decca 421074
  3. Das Rheingold, Solti, Vienna Philharmonic, Decca 414101
  4. Siegred Vienna Philharmonic Solti Decca 414110
  5. Wagner, Gotterdammerung, Vienna Philharmonic, Solti, Decca 414115
  6. Verdi, Otello, Vienna Philharmonic, Solti, Decca 440 045
  7. Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 9, CSO, Solti, Decca 410012
  8. Richard Strauss, Electra, Vienna Philharmonic, Solti, Decca 417345
  9. Edward Elgar, Symphony No. 1, Decca, 421387
  10. Bela Bartok, Solti, London Symphony Orchestra 436610
  11. Josef Haydn Symphony, No. 93, London Philharmonic Orchestra Solti Decca 417 620
  12. Ludwig von Beethoven, Symphony No. 6, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Solti, Decca 421773
  13. Franz Schubert, Symphony No. 9, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra Solti, Decca 460 311
  14. Wagner, Siegried Idyll recording as above
  15. Michael Tippett, Symphony No. 4, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Solti

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  • Mr Kouri is a real writer and we get things as seen from the inside. Carry on and I’m looking forward to, what I hope, will be a continuing series.

  • A very interesting read with a very balanced critique of Solti’s approach. There are some minor corrections that can be picked up by a proof reader – Joan Sutherland presumably, the last line I assume refers to Solti and not Tippett. There are others.

  • Personally, I’m a bigger fan of the Bohm/Bayreuth “Ring”. The Sawallisch is rather underrated too.

    As for the Tippet 4th, oy vey!

    “One of the most notable symphonic efforts in Vienna was his recording of the Schubert “Great” C major Symphony”

    Sure, except that Solti leaves out the expo repeat in the first movement, then takes every bloody repeat in both the scherzo and finale – just the opposite of what you might really want to do. In spite of poor sound and less than perfect orchestral execution, hear Furtwaengler instead.

    • I attended a VPO/Solti concert in June 1981 that included Schubert’s great, and was underwhelmed by the interpretation. The concert also included Mahler’s Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen, beautifully sung by an indisposed Hermann Prey. He couldn’t project very much, but was otherwise exquisite. I also liked Solti’s accompaniment, quite a lot.

      But judging from the concert, I never understood why the Schubert recording that came out around the same time is highly regarded. As I am writing this, I am listening to the second movement, and still don’t get it.

        • I love that symphony and cherish at least two recordings: Szell and van Immerseel. Maybe the recording is much better than the live concert, but my first impression has created in me a blind (deaf?) spot.

  • Birgit Nilsson was NOT a “Solti sceptic”. On BBC radio she once said, “I loved him. He taught me so much”. He did not voluntarily drop out of the Bayreuth “Ring” – he was worried about his heart and his doctor told him to do only one cycle in 1984. After all, his mother and sister had both died prematurely of heart disease. Wolfgang W. refused this compromise. He had also turned down Hall’s and Solti’s suggestion that they mount new productions one by one.

  • Very interesting piece, thanks. I particularly enjoyed the following sentence:

    They had foolishly agreed to producing all four operas in the same year, causing a rehearsal schedule which was unrealizable

    That’s common practice in Bayreuth, but doesn’t alter the fact it really is foolish…

  • Fascinating. For me, the Solti Nilsson VPO Salome remains one of the glories of the grammophone. But the stars in it are the VPO, Solti himself, and the engineers. Terrific stuff. If you want to hear the now defunct Vienna sound in all its glory, in its heyday, this is Exhibit A. Later on with the CSO, I nearly always found him too loud and too aggressive.

  • Salty was hit and miss. The Mahler 8 recording is more hit than miss and has the best singers for any Mahler 8 set down, period.

    • All conductors are hit and miss, just like there is no such thing as a definitive performance. His name was Solti. I fail to understand the immaturity and rudeness of the name calling on this blog. Some people are so insecure. I lived in Chicago during the Solti and Barenboim years, and was a CSO subscriber for Solti’s last 12 years there. The CSO was a great Mahler and Bruckner orchestra then, and their programming was adventurous. The CSO was a great place to be in the 1980’s with Henry Fogel as a superb chief executive and Claudio Abbado as principal guest for a time (marvellous Mahler 6th from him). The Tippet 4th and Lutoslawski 3rd were fine, and who can forget Final Alice. The Meistersinger (spread over 2 concerts) was a hit while the Otello (not a good night for Pavarotti) was a miss. I grew up with the Solti Ring on Decca, but have since moved on to a number of live performances for ongoing listening. But do try his live Covent Garden Walkure on Testament. A treasure, as was Solti.

      • Rob, while I won’t deny that Solti had a good cast for Mahler 8 (a tad too operatic for my taste), I truly feel that Kubelik had the best cast of them all. I believe that the cast is identical on Kubelik’s DG studio recording, and his Audite ‘live’ recording.

        https://www.amazon.com/Mahler-Symphony-Bayerischen-Rundfunks-So/dp/B003DQ0AJY/ref=sr_1_1?s=music&ie=UTF8&qid=1531000370&sr=1-1&keywords=mahler+8+kubelik+audite

        The cast shows on the backside

        • But no Heather Harper, Lucia Popp, Rene Kollo. The stars of the show. And… we know Mahler was writing operatically given all his wealth of experience conducting operatic masterpieces with some of the finest singers.

          The Kubelik is very good, but it does not overwhelm me like Solti or Wyn Morris. Bernstein’s first recording on CBS very good too and we can only imagine what Karajan would have done with No 8. The Abbado is very well sung and the Tennstedt Royal Festival Hall video recording is also involving.

          • Rob, not to contradict you in anyway, but you might be surprised to know that my personal favorite Mahler 8 is the Colin Davis, in spite of some very obvious flaws. Because of all his experience with those big, hybrid works by Berlioz, C. Davis just sounds so comfortable with M8 – but without being slack with it. It doesn’t sound so great on the original RCA issue, but it does sound better (fuller bass) in the new BR Klassik box set of Mahler symphonies 1-9 (no 10th or “Das Lied”).

            Davis does something that nobody else does quite nearly as much. At the end of Part 2, Davis has it choral forces hang on to the very last syllable they sing in the entire work: “hiiiiiii – naaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan”. It’s positively thrilling and gives me chills every time.

            Yes, I prefer Bernstein’s ’66 LSO version to the Solti – I think it has more heart and soul. I realize Bernstein didn’t make himself all that well loved in London.

            I also like a number of the newer ones that people overlook, such as Markus Stenz on Oehms (best ending to Part 2 EVER!); Jonathan Nott and Thierry Fischer on Reference Recordings (possible the best overall recording of any, if also considering sound quality). From the 1980’s both Gary Bertini and Eliahu Inbal gave us outstanding Mahler, including their renditions of M8.

            With Tennstedt, I actually prefer his EMI studio recording to the later live one. I was lucky to see him do the “Resurrection” symphony in London in 1981.

            By the way Boulez (DG) and Bertrand de Billy (Oehms) have very, VERY solid casts as well. Sinopoli had excellent women, but not so much the men.

            I also have some excellent live ‘pirates’, such as the recent Nezet-Seguin/Philly one (DG plans to issue it!). Also, a 1991 MTT/S.F. Symphony one that’s vastly superior to the later, readily available recording. Also, a solid one with Levine/Boston from when he first got there.

            Then , of course, there’s the 1958 (I think) Horenstein. One of his very best Mahler recordings.

          • Since I’m rambling on and on, I should add that Mahler 8 has been incredibly lucky on dvd as well. There’s the very special Bernstein/VPO performance from Wien’s larger Konzerthaus in 1975. I very much like Dudamel’s truly ‘symphony of a thousand’ from Caracas. It’s much better than you might think. And perhaps the best ‘compromise’ of all, is Riccardo Chailly’s magnificent one from Leipzig.

            I haven’t seen Chailly’s more recent Lucerne Festival one. My impression of it from the few, short excerpts I’ve seen, is that it’s quite different from the Leipzig.

        • I had my ticket for Abbado’s Mahler 8 opener in Lucerne, then he cancelled and the programme changed so I cancelled too.

          I wonder, which is NL’s favourite Mahler 8 recording ???

        • A silly blog in my view, showing the narrow-mindedness of the writer who is ill-equipped to comment on “Otello” since he has never listened to the recording nor does he mention the concert. In my view, Solti gives an exciting performance with some magical moments in the love duet and the garden scene with Desdemona. Pavarotti may not be ideal but comes across well on record. Only one thing spoils it all and that is the loud “Bravo!” when the music has barely finished.

          • I was at the concert (Pavarotti was ill and kept hiding under a towel – he barely knew the role) and owned the recording. There are far better Otellos than this.

      • I am a Mahler’s 8 lover, I have many, but for me the live conducted by Neeme Jarvi on BIS is unsurpassed

        • Yes, I like the N. Jarvi recording. It’s fast from beginning to end, but it has a solid cast a superb ending to Part II. Great tam-tam smashes (balanced even better on the Stenz recording).

  • To say Solti left English music well alone is not true. He conducted Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Billy Budd” (which Britten called ‘marvellous’). He conducted Walton’s “Belshazzar’s Feast”, Vaughan Williams’ 4th Symphony, Britten’s “Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge” and orchestral works of Elgar besides the symphonies.

    “Hit and Miss”? What musician doesn’t have weak points or composers he has less affinity with than others?

  • I was at that Solti/Hall Ring at Bayreuth. It was dire. There were no less than 3 Siegfrieds as I recall. The end of Gotterdammerung was a welcome relief. Solti trampled through the music like some great elephant using its trunk as a baton.He was rude to the orchestra in rehearsals and frankly it was the worst Wagner I have ever heard.

    • It is nevertheless indisputable that there was tremendous applause at the end of the first cycle, notable for Sir George, the boos being reserved for the production team. During the second and third cycles Dudley and Hall weren’t there to take cutain calls and the venom was turned on Solti.

        • It was also terribly hot (whatever was it like in the orchestra pit?) so I don’t think anyone could have been at their best – and that includes members of the audience.

          • I remember listening to the Bavarian Radio transmission of that RING, with interviews with some of the singers in between. One of the Rhine Maidens, asked whether she’d felt awkward about having to sine her “Weilalawagas” while moving around in water with nothing on but her own skin, replied that she’d landed the best possible opportunity of all – because it was so terribly hot in the house, she and her two fellow Rhine Maidens thorougly enjoyed singing naked in a pool of cool water.

    • During Soltis first night of Götterdämmerung in Bayreuth I stood backstage as Manfred Jung (Siegfried) came back very angry after second act with the words “The conductor should buy the score!“

  • “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.”

    Alagna? he is not in this recording of Traviata, nor on cd, nor on DVD. Its with Frank Lopardo and leo Nucci.

  • I only got to hear Solti live during his last fifteen years but, on that limited evidence, this assessment strikes me as fair. He was more convincing in operas than in symphonies. Even by the mid-1990s (the time of his live CSO Meistersinger), he still lacked the ability of the great Wagner conductors to shape entire acts into coherent wholes.

    But there were positives. As he got older, and drove the music less hard, he became a fine Mozart conductor. His recording of Figaro from the mid-1980s is justly admired; a live concert performance with the COE and Margaret Price as the Countess during the Mozart bicentenary year of 1991 was even better. There was a lively ROH Entfuhrung in (I think) 1987. He also excelled in Verdi. I happened to be at the ROH for what proved to be his final appearance there in the summer of 1997 (just before the long closure for the renovation): a revival of the Moshinsky production of Boccanegra with Te Kanawa as Amelia. It was a good note on which to bow out.

    • I wouldn’t judge Solti’s Wagner by the concert Meistersinger. My library has complete Rings by Solti, Krauss, Knappertsbusch, Keilberth, Furtwangler (1950), Goodall and Bohm, with a smattering of Leinsdorf and Brodanzky thrown in. Not sure what is meant about an inability to shape entire acts into a coherent whole. Listen to the live Covent garden performances on Testament of Walkure and the 3rd act of Gotterdammerung. That is Solti at some of his best in Wagner. Incoherent? No way.

  • A retired CSO player I know says that the biggest problem Solti had was lack of a clear stick technique. Drove players crazy. Caused a lot of the problems in Bayreuth. Electrifying at his best, though, and there’s a reason a bust of him is across the street from symphony hall in Chicago and not one of Reiner, Kubelik or Martinon.

  • As a long decades long Solti fan , I reject the notion that his performances were merely ” brash,loud, coarse and insensitive ” , lacking “the long line ” (whatever that is ) . I have never found his performances to be like this .
    Despite his exuberance and love of vivid orchestral colors , his performances never struck me as lacking in lyricism and flexibility . I also disagree with Mercurius Londoniensis about Solti allegedly being “unable to shape entire acts of Wagner operas into coherent wholes ” , whatever that is . His Wagner was refreshingly energetic and sweeping , avoiding the turgidity and inertia of the vastly overrated Reginald Goodall and some other Wagner conductors .

  • Munich, Frankfurt, London, Chicago and Paris. That’s not a first- class career. Karajan’s is. London, Milan, Vienna, Berlin, Salzburg – and Paris too.

    I very much prefer Karajan to Solti. I have tried to enjoy his opera and concert performances for several years but never managed to. Too brutal, no legato. My fault perhaps.

    • Perhaps. “Munich, Frankfurt, London, Chicago and Paris. That’s not a first- class career. Karajan’s is. London, Milan, Vienna, Berlin, Salzburg – and Paris too.” I am note sure what that comparison really means. As to Karajan and Solti, I like records of both. They both did superb Falstaffs, and some good Verdi (listen to Karajan’s live Trovatore and Solti’s studio Ballo, as examples). Generally I don’t like the way Karajan smooths over the music, so I find a lot of his Wagner uninvolved. Solti had a grand career, and I will always treasure what I heard of him in Chicago. We lost him too soon. As a rule, I believe in positive selling. Tell me what is good about what you do, and don’t try to sell me by bad-mouthing the competition. In my world, there are places for both Solti and Karajan, just not perhaps in the same repertoire. They all have positives and negatives and belittling one doesn’t make the other better. I don’t need to tear down Tebaldi or de los Angeles because I have a preference for Callas (in a supreme Lucia made all the better by Karajan’s conducting for example.)

      • While he is not particularly to my taste, the claim he didn’t have a major career, and was not one of the major conductors of his era is just bizarre.

    • Why did Karajan keep Solti out of the Salzburg Festival until Karajan was fading? Because Solti was a far finer conductor of Richard Strauss.

      • ehhhhh, . . . let’s say faster and more exciting. Compare “Heldenleben” vs. Heldenleben. Kempe was better than either of them in “Heldenleben”. No comparison in “Tod und Verklaerung”, though – Karajan was incredible with that work. I don’t think Solti recorded that one. I would take Solti’s “Alpine” Symphony (Munich – done very swiftly) over Karajan’s (overly saturated in the strings). Then again, I would take both Kempe/Dresden and Mehta/L.A. Phil. over both Solti and Karajan in the “Alpine” Symphony.

        Strauss operas? . . . yes, Solti was very good with those. Possibly his best overall contribution to music.

  • The Culshaw-Solti bromance was one of the great stories of the classical music recording industry. I love what they did together.

  • . . . just an awful Bruckner conductor, in my book. Not so great at Haydn or Schumann either – both prerequisites for being really good at Mahler , in my opinion.

    I think he did much of his best work in London and Munich. He liked England.

  • I found Solti endlessly annoying – and worse to listen to when speaking. Sorry. (And I know Kleiber wasn’t all that keen either. That’s my pass of approval.)

    • That’s not true, Sue: Carlos K. only accepted his two engagements in Chicago because he was fond of “Sir Salty”.

  • I was Peter Hall’s assistant on the Bayreuth Ring. I know that Peter kept a diary but decided not to publish it. My own diary on the Ring I shared with Stephen Fay who incorporated some of it in his book about the Hall/Solti production “The Ring: Anatomy of an Opera”. A must read for anyone interested in what happened in Bayreuth in 1983.

    • I attended a 1986 Siegfried and loved it. What a pity the production was never released in an audiovisual recording. Can you share the reasons?

      • Once we lost Reiner Goldberg as our Siegfried there was no longer any interest in recording the production, not from Solti, not from Christopher Raeburn (Decca) and certainly not from Wolfgang Wagner who in fact ordered Decca to destroy the tapes made of the orchestra-stage and dress rehearsals.

    • I lived in London during Peter Hall’s first year at the National (South Bank) after it opened. I have read his diaries several times, and so wish he had published the Ring diary before he died. Wish the whole of the National Theatre diaries had been published as well. A great director very much missed.

  • Solti is for some here a minuscule conductor. He was in fact an amazing Opera conductor. Do I need to list all his top recordings? Wagner: His Parsifal is on the top of the discography( yes he has the “long” line required) as well as his Tannhauser not to speak about the ring,
    Mozart: the most magnificent recording of the Nozze di Figaro in London, a formidable Zauberflote in Vienna, Verdi: His Ballo is on the top as well as many others, Strauss : Elektra, Salome, Rosenkavalier etc… only Boehm as a competitor on all this ( not Verdi). Karajan is nowhere in Mozart compared to Solti.

    • Speaking only of live performances I attended, Karajan was a much better Mozart conductor than Solti. I have heard both of them in Figaro ( Karajan in his last performance of the opera on August 26, 1980 in Salzburg and Solti with the COE a the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in 1991 ). The latter seemed to skate over the music while in the former I found at the same time depth and lightness. Only Muti approached this in the work several years later at the Vienna State Opera. Several other Mozart performances by Karajan ( five Giovannis, one Requiem, one Jupiter and many 29 and 39 ) only confirmed this opinion. Böhm, Kleiber and Bernstein were also superb Mozart conductors for me.

    • Solti’s Rosenkavalier remains by far the best uncut commercial stereo recording. Track down an LP copy with what is still the best libretto presentation of a repertory opera. Consider yourself lucky if your libretto copy has the original Roller stage and costume designs in color. Later pressings devolved to a b/w reprint.

  • Wonderful article. Written without the air of superiority that infects many of the comments. Sit back, relax and enjoy the music.

  • This page serves as Exhibit A for why music criticism is so difficult and rarely succeeds. The critic must be authoritative not just opinionated, insightful not merely encyclopedic, and must have a unique voice rather than being idiosyncratic. Otherwise, it’s just 100 people arguing back and forth.

    • +1

      One of my favorite things I’ve ever read is Hesse’s essay “About Good And Bad Critics.” In it, he maintains that a good critic must be not objective, but subjective — in the sense that he is informed, educated, and “knows what he likes” based on a breadth of knowledge rather than just the first recording he heard when he was twelve. (I’m paraphrasing here; the piece is from 1930 and recordings were not as common as now. Besides, he’s talking about art in general, not music in particular. Anyway — )

      Then his job is to make his preferences and the reasons for them clear, so that his readers (a) have a clear idea of what is actually happening and (b) can form an informed opinion about the art or artist in question.

      It seems to me that I read a lot of criticism on the lines of “she wore a skin-tight orange minidress that left little to the imagination and sequined Jimmy Choo stilettos with criss-cross ankle straps… oh, and she also played Bartok or something with great accuracy and charisma. The audience loved it, and she played several encores. The end.”

      *sigh*

  • I’m very surprised no one has mentioned Solti’s brilliant Bartok recordings, especially those made with the LSO, which are quite as good as Reiner’s if not better. The remakes in Chicago aren’t quite so good, the earlier ones being almost impossible to better. He also made a splendid recording of the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion with Murray Perahia, which is still in the catalogue.

    • Stephen: I fully agree. Solti’s Bartok had a grit and inflections to it hardly anybody else could ever match. He remained Hungarian until the end, even though he seems to have practically forgotten how to speak the language-that’s how long he had been away.

      • Iván Fischer gets more musical results than the Solti/CSO series, which I feel is mostly “empty.” It sits on my shelf. Even Boulez/CSO is more compelling.

        Solti/LSO may be another story.

  • One of my most fortuitous moments as a amateur horn player was to get to spend thirty minutes or so talking with Barry Tuckwell when he visited SMU several years ago. It was at a break he and I were the only ones in the lobby. Discussion turned after a while to Solti. Tuckwell recounted several anecdotes about his time at the London Symphony. Tuckwell noted that Solti was an exacting task master, then added the orchestra hired the music director. He said it was a mark of respect for the musicians that they rehired him several times

    • As I said in a previous post, I think much of Solti’s best work was with the LSO, LPO and Covent Garden.

  • Just a word about Solti’s Decca Ring. I have some 30 recordings of the Ring, and must say that I was always delighted by the fact that Solti followed the composer’s verbal instructions, recorded by Felix Mottl and printed in the old Schott edition, something hardly any other conductor bothers with (including Karajan). As an aside to Mahler enthusiasts, let it be said that Mahler’s characteristic negative admonitions in his scores (like “nicht schleppen” in his first symphony etc.) were prefigured by RW’s remarks vs. tempo or transitions (like “nicht zu sehr beschleunigen” in Walküre act 1). Solti is esp. careful about these Mottle quotes, in Walküre, but also in Siegfried. Like Mahler, he cared very deeply about the Ring.

    • It’s difficult to say just how much of that was due to John Culshaw’s input. According to “Ring Resounding”, Culshaw had to intervene quite a bit. If true, I don’t find that surprising.

      • I had a few years before her death an interview with Birgit Nilsson, not Solti was her problem in the Ring recording but Culshaw: he minimized my voice, she said.

        • I’m thinking more in terms of tempo relationships and balances. But yeah, sure; they probably had very different overall ‘visions’ for the Ring

      • While it is true that we will never know the exact details, I find it hard to believe that Culshaw suggested Solti follow Mottl’s remarks. For one thing, Solti’s German was much better than Mottl’s. I think it more likely that Culshaw intervened in questions of balance (thus Nilsson’s remark, which is likely true), as well as some general questions of pacing (the “proper record listening speed” vs. the “proper live action drama speed”). Fine nuances of transition, as indicated by Mottl’s edits, would not have been Culshaw’s business, and I can’t imagine Solti needing (or following) his advice on those. Part of the explanation may be that the Vienna Phil. was imbued with many “Furtwänglerian” touches, as they had played over 30 orchestral rehearsals (i.e. without singers) when learning th Ring with him in the 20’s, and were still using the same orchestra material, in Solti’s time; and Solti, unlike other conductors in Vienna (HvK and others), liked those nuances and kept them.

  • I’m sorry to take this in a different direction, but I’m wondering why you British folk feel this need to keep bringing up Solti when you’ve had sooooo many other great conductors work in London: Klemperer, Rudolf Kempe, Beecham, Boult, Giulini, Previn Tennstedt, Barbirolli, Horenstein, early Karajan, von Matacic, the young Maazel, Eugen Goosens – and on and on it goes.

    I’m thinking that there’s a certain insecurity in maybe – possibly – having overrated Solti in the ‘review by concensus’ manner that London critics seemed to have subscribed to for decades (Gramophone, Penguin Guide, etc.). Regardless, . .

    Just an observation by someone who is very outside that system. Let’s discuss some of the others sometime.

      • Please do so. It would be nice to talk about someone else who can get up in front of an orchestra, give directions and wave a stick.

        • Mr Guerrero clearly has a very limited knowledge of what the very difficult art of ochestral conducting requires.

    • Solti is being discussed because this is a thread about him started by the memories of Murray Khouri which have been published and reproduced at the top of this thread. So it is not true to assert that we “British folk” (see yours of 9th July 6.06am) keep bringing up Solti. Khouri was born in New Zealand and whilst he did work in the UK he also worked in both NZ and Australia.

  • Solti gave us a very driven but excellent Mahler 7 recording, infact one of a few that has the demisemiquaver notation in the strings at the opening correctly delineated.

    • I wish we knew definitively if those demisemiquavers were meant to be measured. Using three slashes is the correct notation for both measured and unmeasured tremolos, and for clarity Mahler could have written “trem.”, but he didn’t. It is odd that the two most prominent conductors who play it measured both hail from Chicago: Solti and Barenboim. It sounds wrong to me – an unmeasured, Brucknerian sound seems more appropriate and that is how virtually every other conductor does it, most notably these two: Klemperer, who was there for the premiere and Scherchen, who played it under the composer I think.

    • Yes, but the finale is a train wreck. The timpanist can’t play his rolls in the opening flourish at that tempo, and the rest is downhill from there – disguised by the fact that the (in)famous Chicago brass don’t miss a cue. In general, Solti was very good with first movements. But that was part of the problem, actually: he often times sounded as though he had spent too much rehearsal time on first movements and didn’t leave enough room for later movements. I noticed that over and over.

      • “I wish we knew definitively if those demisemiquavers were meant to be measured”

        I prefer it played that way, but that’s just my own preference. There’s already a tremolo underneath that, played on the bass drum. Nobody ever mentions that. Of course, strokes on a bass drum aren’t going to be played any faster than what’s written in the string player’s parts, but it will come out sounding like a roll just the same. I like the clarity of the strings playing their 32nd notes as written (I hate using demi-semi nomenclature).

        While I’m no lover of Barenboim in general, that Mahler 7 is very good. Of course, that’s with the Staatskapelle Berlin and not the CSO. I did hear him conduct M7 in Carnegie Hall with the CSO, and it was very much like the recording (a bit louder brass, perhaps).

        • I dont ike Barenboims at all, also (even as a Solti fan) dont like Soltis Mahler7th. Rushed over, even if Haitinks 1982 recording isnt that much slower, it sounds more naturally paced.

  • Lutoslawski’s 3rd Symphony, also premiered by Solti, is arguably as important as Tippett’s 4th Symphony – if not even more!

  • I disagree with Barry Guerrero about Solti being best in opening movements and his performances going down from there . They’ve ever seemed this way to me, at least . His Mahler 7th is still my favorite . No other recording captures the work’s eerie nocturnal atmosphere, and if the finale is a “train wreck ” it’s a glorious train wreck ! No other recording captures its riotous abandon and fun like Solti’s .
    And i wouldn’t call the Chicago brass “infamous “. Only Solti’s detractors do .

    • Yes, obviously, it was (and still is) a very great brass section. One of the reasons that I’m a detractor, is because Solti permitted that brass section – particularly trumpets and trombones – to make little distinction between forte and fortissimo. It was just a generalized ‘loud’. The horns couldn’t keep up without sounding somewhat ‘brackish’ and brittle. Arnold Jacobs, the truly great tuba player of the CSO, couldn’t keep up either, as his wind capacity – through no fault of his own – was greatly impaired in his later years. They also covered over the percussion, which is not really a plus for Mahler, quite frankly (except for the loud timpani). This is not just from listening to Decca recordings, but also from my own experiences of hearing them live.

      If the Solti’s finale to M7 works for you, fair enough. It certainly doesn’t for me, and there are very good reasons why both the Levine and Abbado recordings – also with the CSO – were very much welcomed. If you’d like to hear what I think is a truly great finale (not as strong in the brass, obviously), I’m offering this link to the finale of the Markus Stenz Mahler 7. It’s not my favorite overall M7, but the finale is terrific.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ydhuepavj9g

      I believe, as several people have already commented, Solti was generally better with opera than with music that involved sonata-allegro form. Generally. There are always exceptions.

      • . . . and if anybody does play the Youtube link, be sure to bump the ‘quality’ up to 720p or more. It’ll sound better.

  • Some of the balance problems may have been due to the less than ideal acoustics of orchestra hall in Chicago, but I heard them live elsewhere and found none of them under Solti . Actually, Solti was a past master at orchestral balance .
    I still prefer his Chicago recordings to those of Reiner with the same group . Reiner’s may have been more polished , but they’ve always seemed antiseptic and cold to me by comparison . Everything is so tightly controlled and micromanaged .
    Reiner was a cold, calculating tyrant with orchestras , unlike Solti, who could sometimes get annoyed with orchestras, but who never ruled them like a tyrant .

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