The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Georg Solti conducted an orchestra the way Arthur Rubinstein played the piano: In a straight-forward, muscular and non-neurotic way while the recording industry was its peak.

October 26, 2012
11 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Last Friday marked the 100th birthday of famed conductor Sir Georg Solti. Decca will be issuing nine special multi-CD releases (including a deluxe edition of Wagner’s “Ring”) plus a special 2- CD set with previously unreleased recordings to celebrate the centennial event. And justly so. Solti (below, with a Grammy) won 32 Grammy awards – more than any other musician who was classical, pop, folk, rock, jazz, blues, whatever.

An import from Europe, where he was a refugee from Hitler and spent World War II exiled and jobless in Switzerland, the Hungarian-born Solti, who studied with Bartok, restored the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to world-class preeminence during his 22 years leading the ensemble.

And Solti’s career, which spanned more than 60 years, was aptly described and analyzed in a terrific story last Friday morning on NPR’s “Morning Edition” by musician and music critic Miles Hoffman. His main thesis was that Solti was as his height just as the recording industry was also at its height. The needed each other and complemented each other.

That made Solti’s complete recording of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle — which took several years and was the first in history — as well as of the complete symphonies and concertos by Beethoven (below), Brahms and Mahler something special, not just another addition or alternative. The same goes for his many opera recordings. He was the complete musician.

I would add only one more observation: The secret to Solti’s artistic and commercial success was that he allowed us as listeners to hear the music rather than himself.

That was why he could succeed in almost any period or composer or work, from the Baroque era through the Classical and Romantic periods and then into the 20th century,  and why soloists of so many different temperaments and styles liked to work with him. Solti was not a specialist, but a musical chameleon in the best sense.

An affable and dashing, cosmopolitan and compassionate figure who liked to socialize and who played tennis until well into his 80s, Solti seemed the epitome of the healthy musician. His style was marked by a certain naturalness and muscularity, though not by unbalanced brute force. His tempi never seemed exaggerated in either the fast or slow direction, and his use of flexible rubato always seemed judicious and never self-indulgent.

Moreover, he always made music exude both sense and beauty, qualities too rarely exhibited in some contemporary music and performances. As a result, he was not an unmistakable interpreter or egotistical stylist like, say, Vladimir Horowitz or Wilhelm Furtwangler. His performances never seemed fussy, precious or pretentious. Instead they just seemed, well … normal, the way that the music must have been meant to sound. In short, he was always both reliable and, with rare exception, exciting. I would put him in the company of someone like Bernard Haitink.

Let me put it this way: George Solti conducted the orchestra the way Arthur Rubinstein played the piano. You always felt secure and refreshed in the presence of the music’s greatness, not the player’s personality. The beauty he made just seemed so normal and such an integral part of life that it became part of the so-called “natural world.” And that is the way great art should be: inevitable and a force of nature.

Maybe you will agree with me, and maybe not. But in any case, you should read the story.

Here is a link to that NPR story about Georg Solti:

http://www.npr.org/2012/10/19/163224678/recordings-reissued-on-soltis-100th-birthday

Did you ever hear Solti live? What did you like or dislike?

What is your favorite recording with Solti conducting (he also played the piano)?

What do you think made Georg Solti a great conductor?

Leave your thoughts in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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