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Tucson Weekly Finely Composed

The memoirs of Hungarian conductor Sir George Solti.

By Emil Franzi

JANUARY 12, 1998: 

Memoirs, by Sir Georg Solti ( Knopf). Cloth, $25.95.

SIR GEORG SOLTI completed this work just before his death on September 5, 1997. He was scheduled to re-open the refurbished Symphony Hall in Chicago, the scene of his greatest musical triumphs. The October 25 performance with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (made world-famous under his direction) would have been his 1,000th, as well as his 85th birthday. Anyone with an interest in opera or symphonic music will find his memoirs a must.

Solti, as Chicago Tribune music critic John von Rhein stated, was the last of his breed. His recorded legacy of almost 50 years is massive. And he was almost the last great conductor who began his career before the Second World War, leaving only a frail Carlo Maria Giulini, at 83, and Gunther Wand, at 85.

Solti's memoirs are much like his conducting: blunt. He was not one of the subtle or cerebral wielders of the baton. Rhythmic drive and sheer power often took precedence over shadings and lyric moments. He was a perfectionist, and able to transmit his will--the first qualification of a great conductor. While there aren't any of the cheap shots often found in personal notes, he does aim a few zingers at some of his contemporaries. And there are many generous moments.

Solti's early musical training came from some of the greatest musicians Hungary has ever produced: Bartók, Kodály and Dohnányi were all present and teaching in Budapest when he was a student. But he credits the relatively unknown composer Leo Weiner as his greatest influence, and a Beethoven performance under Erich Kleiber as his motivation to become a conductor. He idolized Toscanini and a simple "bene" proffered by that great maestro was still a highlight in his life 60 years later.

He also overcame significant adversity. As a Jewish refugee in Switzerland during World War II, he barely eked out a living. He credits his ultimate success immodestly to talent and hard work, but honestly includes good luck as a major factor. In 1946, the anti-Nazis in Germany had all fled or been killed, and those who stayed were disqualified from performing. He became director of the Bavarian State Opera simply because there wasn't anybody else.

Solti was a conductor whose interpretations grew over time, and he later understood and appreciated those with a far different approach from that of Toscanini, such as Furtwangler. Understood, one should note, but not endorse.

One endorsement ends on a sad note: Solti discusses his role at the Metropolitan Opera, and his disputes with the Met's long-time dictator Sir Rudolf Bing (who died at 95 three days before Solti). He notes that the Met Orchestra under James Levine has become the finest opera orchestra in the world, and that he looked forward to leading it in a Mahler performance in 1998. Unfortunately, that is not to be.

As would be expected in the life story of someone who reached the pinnacle of his profession, this volume is filled with wonderful anecdotes. One example: In 1949, Solti called upon the aged Richard Strauss, and had an illuminating discussion that extended into an unplanned lunch. They were about to discuss Mozart when Strauss' domineering wife curtly dismissed Solti because it was time for the great composer's nap. Strauss agreed to meet with Solti the next time he was in town--and died two months later, before Solti could return.

What is most impressive is Solti's incredible vitality. Up until his final days, he kept a schedule that would tire anyone; and it was obvious that the learning process never slowed down. He was planning a host of projects, and he wanted to return to works he hadn't led for some time, as well as many others he'd never performed. Part of his process was to ignore his earlier scores and recordings and start fresh with a new, unmarked text. Many of his later interpretations differ greatly from the same works performed 10 or 20 years ago.

Solti spent a decade leading the Royal Opera in London (an appointment which led to his Knighthood in 1971), and 22 years at the helm of the Chicago Symphony (1969-1991). He led, as well as recorded with, most of the great orchestras and opera companies of the world. His was the first full Wagner Ring Cycle to appear on disc. He leaves more than 250 recordings, and he won 32 Grammy Awards--more than any other artist, popular or classical.

Solti has never been considered one of the great conductors of the century. Like his countryman Eugene Ormandy, he was always somewhat looked down upon by music critics. Nearly 20 years after his passing, Ormandy and his musical legacy are being re-evaluated, often in a more generous light. Like Paul Paray, Rudolf Kempe and others whose greatness we've re-discovered posthumously, the same may well occur with Solti, a professional of the highest order whose musicianship was unchallenged.

He left hundreds of recordings on which to build future judgments. And fortunately, he finished his illuminating memoirs before what seems, even at almost 85, a premature removal from our midst.


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