Solti - Journey Of A Lifetime

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SOLTI – Journey of a Lifetime Celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the birth of Sir Georg Solti A film by Georg Wübbolt

Valerie Solti
Valery Gergiev
Christoph von Dohnányi
Sir Peter Jonas
Clemens Hellsberg
Ewald Markl
and many more as interview partners as well as several musical excerpts conducted by Sir Georg Solti

Dmitry Shostakovich: Symphony No. 1 in F minor, Op. 10
Sergey Prokofiev: Symphony No. 1 in D major, Op. 25, “Classical”
Modest Mussorgsky: Khovanshchina: Prelude

Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Georg Solti, conductor

R E V I E W:

SOLTI: JOURNEY OF A LIFETIME Georg Solti, cond; Chicago SO C-MAJOR 711708 (DVD: 106: 00) A film by Georg Wübbolt

MUSSORGSKY Khovanshchina: Prelude. PROKOFIEV Symphony No. 1, “Classical.” SHOSTAKOVICH Symphony No. 1. Live: Chicago 1977

What is Georg Solti’s place in the pantheon of podium titans? He gained celebrity when he led the first complete recording of Wagner’s Ring to be issued. He created a comparable sensation when he took over the Chicago Symphony and led that orchestra in concerts and recordings that dazzled with their brilliance, virtuosity, and tonal splendor. In the 1970s Harold C. Schonberg, the influential chief music critic of the New York Times , pronounced Solti and Karajan the two most significant conductors of the age, characterizing Solti’s sonority as “molten gold,” in contrast to the “silvery” Karajan sound. As is usual, extravagant acclaim soon led detractors to weigh in, and Solti’s recordings began to be criticized as crude, unyielding, over-driven, excessively muscular, and lacking in nuance and refinement. Although he holds the record for the number of Grammy awards, his many recordings of standard symphonic repertoire rarely turn up today on lists of preferred versions, and he did not make BBC Music magazine ’s list of the 20 greatest conductors, as selected by a poll of 100 currently active conductors. (Nor, astonishingly, did Otto Klemperer or Bruno Walter.)

The centennial of Solti’s birth in 2012 saw the release on DVD of two documentaries about his life and career. The other one, which I have not seen, was reviewed by Lynn René Bayley in Fanfare 36:3. It is nearly three times as long as the one under review here and apparently more thorough and detailed, with a lengthier supplement of complete performances. The C Major release combines a 52-minute documentary with 54 minutes of performances by the Chicago Symphony. Filmmaker Georg Wübbolt was also responsible for a documentary on Carlos Kleiber that I reviewed in 35:1. As in that earlier effort, he follows the standard technique of interspersing commentary by those who knew the conductor, worked with him, or followed his career, with clips from rehearsals and performances. Solti himself is much more of a participant in the commentary than was Kleiber, who stopped giving interviews early in his career. Wübbolt also follows his earlier practice of shifting rapidly from one commentator to the next, which generates a fast-paced narrative but also leaves loose ends and unanswered questions. As in his earlier documentary, there are issues one would like to have discussed in greater detail. It is also sometimes hard to keep track of the identities of the commentators and their connection to Solti, since they are often not again identified when they reappear. They include Solti’s widow, Valerie, Christoph von Dohnányi, who served as his assistant in Frankfurt, Valery Gergiev, and the critic Norman Lebrecht, along with musicians and officials of the Chicago Symphony, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Frankfurt and Munich opera houses, the Bayreuth Festival, and others. Considering the importance of opera in Solti’s career, the absence of singers with whom he worked from the ranks of commentators is surprising and regrettable. The film is mostly in German, with English subtitles, although there is some narration and comment in English. Solti himself speaks in German.

The documentary provides a succinct overview of Solti’s career: his musical training in his native Budapest under Bartók, Ernö Dohnányi, and Leo Weiner; his 1937 visit to Salzburg, where he met Toscanini and was recruited to serve as a repetiteur; his second meeting with Toscanini in Lucerne in 1939, on the eve of World War II, which resulted in his being stranded in Switzerland for the duration of the conflict. In postwar Germany, he finally had the opportunity to begin a conducting career, since most German conductors were temporarily barred by the victorious Allies from performing. He first headed the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, where life for him was very difficult. The opera orchestra (“all Nazis” according to Solti) did not take kindly to being led by a young Hungarian Jew and showed it. In 1951 he moved to the somewhat friendlier territory of Frankfurt. His career took a giant step forward when producer John Culshaw selected him for the Ring project over more senior and established figures, perceiving him as someone who was more amenable to the demands of the recording studio and capable of achieving the results Culshaw envisioned for this ground-breaking effort. The Decca Ring is said to have led to Solti’s appointment to head London’s Royal Opera, although most of Ring operas had not yet been released when this selection took place. After his successful although controversial tenure at Covent Garden (1961-71), where he brought the company to “the highest international standards,” he had had enough of presiding over opera houses and wished to devote himself to symphony orchestras. As music director of the Chicago Symphony (1969-91), he perhaps reached the peak of his career, bringing the orchestra to a level of world-wide acclaim it had never before approached. Not so successful was his brief tenure with the Orchestre de Paris (1972-75), described in the film as “a terrible orchestra” where “no one goes…except for the money.” Curiously, the documentary does not mention his involvement with the London Philharmonic, which he led in the years 1979-83 and with which he recorded Elgar’s symphonies and several Mozart operas, among other works. When Karajan died in 1989 prior to the Salzburg Festival, Solti was urgently requested to take over the production of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera, which he did with some reluctance. Up to then he had never been invited to conduct at Salzburg or at the Berlin Philharmonic. There was no love lost between the two conductors, but they did listen to each other’s recordings to find out how the other was approaching a work. In Solti’s final years, he renewed his ties with Munich in guest appearances with the Bavarian Radio Symphony and returned to his homeland to lead the recently founded Budapest Festival Orchestra in a recording of works by his three teachers.

When the commentators attempt to characterize Solti’s style as a conductor, words like energy, vitality, and fire crop up repeatedly and are underscored by images of his abrupt, even violent movements on the podium. These movements, according to one observer, provoked orchestras to play loudly, and he had difficulty getting them to play more softly. In addition to fire, according to Gergiev, he possessed “icy control.” Other commentators mention his perfectionism, focus on detail, and special concern for rhythm, which are reflected in his practice of singing, or rather chanting, a passage to demonstrate how it should go. The Vienna Philharmonic cellist Werner Resel emphasizes and, I think, exaggerates the role of recordings in establishing Solti’s reputation, arguing that Solti “didn’t make a career by conducting concerts and delighting audiences but by making records that turned out to be great.” This gentleman apparently missed the decades in which Solti was thrilling audiences with his Chicago Symphony concerts, in Europe as well as the U.S. Peter Schmidl, another VPO musician, makes the surprising and demonstrably false claim that “Solti’s great career as a conductor became possible only when Böhm had stopped conducting and Karajan had died…and when Bernstein was no longer around,” in other words, in the last seven years of Solti’s life. The same observer, however, expresses regret that Solti was not called earlier to Salzburg, where he could have achieved great results.

The concert performances included as a supplement are drawn from a 1977 telecast featuring Russian music. The Khovanshchina Prelude is performed in Rimsky-Korsakov’s smoothed-out and comparatively bland revision. In the Prokofiev “Classical” Symphony, Solti’s weighty approach and the massive sound of the Chicago Symphony are perhaps not the best fit for this light and frothy music, but the piece is brilliantly played and enjoyable to hear. The fast-paced, forceful, and once again brilliantly played Shostakovich is the most satisfying item on the program. As was his practice, Solti tends to set a tempo and stick to it, without much inflection for expressive purposes, and with the solid, steady rhythmic underpinning that was one of his hallmarks. Others may bring more mystery and sense of underlying menace to this work, but with Solti the menace is quite overt. The sound is free from distortion, brilliant in tutti, and wide in dynamic range, if a bit opaque and lacking in spaciousness.

Returning to the question I posed at the beginning of this review, I have no definitive answer. Solti’s Ring , which has just been reissued in an expensive, hefty “super deluxe” edition and is said to be by far the best-selling classical recording of all time, retains its status, as does his Mahler Eighth, although even they are not without their detractors, as witness Lynn René Bayley’s unfavorable comments in 36:3. Solti’s legacy as an opera conductor, in Wagner, Strauss, Verdi, and, somewhat surprisingly, Mozart, seems to me secure. Although he was never one of my favorite conductors, he was one who engaged my interest, and I have a good many of his recordings of Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler, and others on my overburdened shelves. I will retain these performances as having enduring value, even if they would not necessarily be among my first choices for the works in question. Solti remains a worthy contributor to the almost infinite variety of performance that enriches our experience of music. For those interested in his life and career, the Wübbolt documentary, despite the shortcomings noted, offers a concise overview with many insights.

FANFARE: Daniel Morrison

1977 Video Production

Picture format: NTSC 16:9 (documentary) / 4:3 (bonus)
Sound format: PCM Stereo
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Languages: English, German
Subtitles: French, Spanish, Korean
Running time: 52 mins (documentary) + 55 mins (bonus)
No. of DVDs: 1 (DVD 9)

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 711708

  • UPC: 814337011178

  • Label: C Major

  • Composer: Dmitri Shostakovich, Modest Mussorgsky, Sergei Prokofiev

  • Conductor: Sir Georg Solti

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Chicago Symphony Orchestra