The centennial of Hungarian conductor Georg Solti arrives on October 21st. As a Hungarian I always found it irritating that he called himself “Georg” rather than “György”. But of course whenever I say that name aloud –and unless you’re Magyar you shouldn’t try it because you might dislocate your tongue—I immediately understand. Georg is easy, György is difficult, in the same ways that Bernie Schwarz couldn’t match the name Tony Curtis or Norma Jean Mortensen is a forgettable handle compared to Marilyn Monroe.
Solti had many great moments in his career, and perhaps a few not so high. I am simply going to list the things I remember him for, and you can decide whether they’re noteworthy or not. There are four acts to our relationship.
Act One: Aida
As a child I’d encountered a few recordings of Verdi’s Aida in my home. I was young, so of course I wasn’t the purchaser, just the passive listener. We had a few different recordings in the house, and if I recall correctly this one was a present to me. Leontyne Price was the voice of the title role, still unequalled in my mind, even as I recognize that we always invest our first version of anything we encounter with a special glamour. Jon Vickers was no Jussi Björling –a singer whose special place in my household has been explained in at least one other post—but was a voice that grew on me. At this early age I’d never seen anything good onstage, so voice was everything (a view that has changed substantially over the years). I was particularly taken with the Act IV scene i duet between Vickers’ Rhadames and Rita Gorr’s Amneris, a reading of surprising vulnerability on both sides. When we get to Amneris’ final denunciation of the priests and hysterical exit music –a passage that has always sounded to me a lot like music from a monster movie—Solti gave it an especially brazen sound, as though to make Amneris’ agony manifest before us. The recording had astonishing sound, miles ahead of its time, and still so vivid that it’s one of the best ones out there. Listen to this sample from the moment Amonasro (Robert Merrill sounding glorious) begins making his dramatic appeal to his captors in the triumphal scene, and you hear something fresh and new. The chorus and orchestra had never been given so much prominence on a recording that I’d ever heard.
Act Two: The Ring
When we come to the Ring Cycle we arrive at one of the achievements most closely linked to Solti, and a reason for his fame: the first recording of a complete Ring Cycle, or at least the first one popularly available in North America. Telling the story of my changing relationship with this version of the cycle is perhaps the best way to put it in context.
The family already owned the Soria Series Die Walküre, conducted by Erich Leinsdorf, a recording that was listened to a great deal by family members.
I obtained the Solti Das Rheingold, the only one available at this time. Although I found the voice of Kirsten Flagstad somewhat unpleasant sounding as Fricka, a singer cast for her fame rather than her great voice, that’s perhaps the one weak link in this recording. The vinyl discs came with a booklet that included a table of Leit-motivs, and –amazing!—a marginal gloss throughout the libretto showing you wherever a particular motiv came up. That’s where my Wagner nerd life begins, with that table and the fun of following along.
This brief illustration is one i still use in my film music course to illustrate Wagner’s importance, using Solti’s recording. At this moment in Das Rheingold, with the help of Donner’s hammer, Wagner shows us the magic of unifying the words, the music and the mise-en-scene. At the precise instant when Donner’s hammer strikes, we get a flash of lightning in the music and the lighting. No recording is more vivid than Solti with Eberhard Wächter singing the part of Donner, and producer John Culshaw’s sound effects.
I bought the Solti Walküre next, which when I look back on it seems odd, given that we had the Soria one already. But I guess I wanted one for myself. This recording was much more a matter of pluses and minues. While I was intrigued by James King as Siegmund –and not yet so infatuated with Jon Vickers’ acting to appreciate his special contribution to the Soria recording—I was mystified by the Wotan of Hans Hotter, which simply didn’t measure up to everyone else.
At Christmas I received Solti’s Siegfried, and the voyage continued. For my this is the most successful of the set, with Gerhard Stolze’s Mime opposite Wolfgang Windgassen’s Siegfried, and incandescent work from Birgit Nilsson in Act III. Hotter sounds quite lovely in this set, or perhaps I was getting accustomed to his wobbly sound. I know I must sound horribly judgmental with what I’ve said about Hotter & Flagstad, singers I admire because of their reputations and from other recordings.
Even so, I had some doubts. I heard some of the new von Karajan set, which was dismissed by one of the narrow-minded critics in the press (I recall his quote claiming that the first highlight of the entire cycle was the appearance of Waltraute in the first act of Götterdämmerung). But I bought the von Karajan set, never buying a vinyl version of the Solti Götterdämmerung, never completing my set. I found it two dimensional with its use of Gottlob Frick as Hagen, when compared to the subtleties of Karl Ridderbusch. My understanding of the Ring was changing. Karajan would do a series of subtle studio recordings that seemed to be companion pieces to the work of Glenn Gould, re-inventing opera as a cool medium for at-home consumption, the gentlest Wagner i have ever encountered. While Wagner himself might be shocked, how could i ignore such an original approach? I only bought my first Solti Götterdämmerung a few weeks ago at a used CD store, as part of a complete Solti Ring for $84.
Act Three: Immortal Beloved
Georg Solti is prominently credited as Music Director for Bernard Rose’s 1994 film Immortal Beloved, a biography of Ludwig van Beethoven. Every recording we hear is in that old-fashioned style, the one being challenged or even replaced by recordings employing original instruments & historically informed performance practices. The one exception –the single authentic moment—comes when Giulietta Guicciardi plays a passage badly on a fortepiano. I recall John Harkness –the late critic for Toronto’s Now Magazine– noticing the same thing I noticed, and asking: why were the performances all in that old style? why indeed.
I think the answer is, Solti. Sound-track recordings were a revenue stream, and so the producers must have come to Solti seeking a way to make money from the film. I realize now it wasn’t Solti’s fault, although at the time i stupidly held it against him. But at the time it was, for me, the one tiny thing marring a film that I still passionately adore. Even so it’s an amazing movie. Here’s one of the highlights for me, a scene that i’m mindful of today, after seeing Frida Kahlo yesterday. If the connection seems odd i will explore it at some point soon (…i hope).
Act Four: Mahler’s 9th
Solti died in 1997. But a few years ago I came across Solti’s recording of Mahler’s 9th Symphony with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I vaguely recalled that this recording won a Grammy back in the day. So when I had the chance to buy the double CD for $10 CAD (surely a steal), how could I resist?
It was amazing, original, a revelation. I realized then and realize now that I know very little of Solti, that his opera recordings –edgy and dramatic—which are sometimes ideal, sometimes not, are only part of his output, part of his personality. I am curious about the rest, belatedly. I recall that his Beethoven performances in the film –even if they are not HIP—are all enjoyable. I have gone through several stages with Solti. My views have changed before and probably will again.
October 21st is Georg Solti’s one hundredth birthday. He may be gone but he’s left an enormous recorded legacy that can still be enjoyed.