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

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:

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.


  1. […] Classical music: Georg Solti conducted an orchestra the way Arthur Rubinstein played the piano: In a… […]

    Pingback by Great Compositions/Performances: Wagner Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg; Prelude to Act I; Solti | euzicasa — May 21, 2014 @ 3:55 pm

  2. I was 18 and attended a concert at the CSO where I think Solti conducted Mahler’s 1st Symphony. I do remember the reception afterwards when he walked into the midst of us (it was a student concert, mostly college students like myself in attendance) and someone motioned me to the side and he walked right by me, surprisingly diminutive as Barbara DeMain mentioned, gaunt, yet no more than 5’4 or so. My impression was of a man exceedingly drunk on applause. The performance was good, perhaps brash as some have said of him, or it might have been the acoustics of orchestra hall that made is seem so. Mahler’s First is brash music anyway. I do like some of Solti’s recordings. His version of Holst’s The Planets is perhaps my favorite, and his Ring Cycle is good. The most I could really say for him, though, was that he was merely a reasonably good conductor. It is unfortunate that the men who make it to the podiums of the world’s great orchestras do so mostly through politics and ambition these days. It saddens me that someone truly great like Günther Wand toiled in obscurity for so many years because his focus was on music, not kissing the moneyed behinds of those who really couldn’t care less about art.

    Comment by C. Morris — December 30, 2012 @ 3:16 am

  3. Reblogged this on The Life of a Teenage Classical Musician.

    Comment by classicalmusicgirl — October 31, 2012 @ 6:10 pm

  4. I admit that I have not heard Solti’s Beethoven (besides No.9) or Brahms sets. However, I have heard enough of his Mahler, Strauss, Bruckner and a handful of others, to say that his straight forward approach doesn’t do much for me (at least in those late Romantic composers). Anders comments on the sound from brass from the CSO. Listen to his recordings from Vienna, Zurich or BRSO and the sound is just as piggish, er, ‘present’. I’m a trombonist, so I hope I can say that 🙂 Jake, you comment about him letting listeners hear the music and not him. I can agree with that…but I also would prefer to hear some caressing of phrases or something beyond mere time-beating (fast and loud!).

    Solti’s accounts of Mahler 5, Mahler 8, and Alpine Symphony were among the first that I learned those works by (and I loved them at the time). Coming back to them only a few years later after learning them more fully/performing them, I was saddened by how much musicality was missing to my ears. Yes, the playing is extremely committed in his recordings, but the kind of playing he got from his players – especially the brass – usually wears thin on me after a few minutes. In any case, the CSO brass played like that before and after his directorship…and still do. All that being said, I am deciding whether I can justify spending $200+ on Decca’s Wagner tribute to him, as it is a stunning achievement that I would love to own. An incredible legacy and an incredibly passionate musician, but I can’t say he’s my cup of tea.

    Comment by Patrick P — October 29, 2012 @ 12:43 am

  5. I recall the appearances of Solti and the CSO at Carnegie Hall in New York during the 1980’s. They were considered “must go” events, especially their performances of Mahler symphonies, which generated tremendous excitement.

    Comment by Bruce — October 28, 2012 @ 10:21 pm

  6. Hi Jake,

    When I was at Northwestern I was too poor to attend ths symphony (and my ‘ear’ had not matured enough to really appreciate the CSO), but the high point of my musical life was to “perform” under the baton of Solti (having been prepared at NU by Margaret Hillis) in the chorus for Mahler’s Eighth Sypmphony.

    We were in the Opera House, and in dress rehearsal there were so many of us on the stage that the top 4 (8?) rows (where we tenors were seated) were singing into the curtains! This was, oh, 40 years ago or so, but I’m confident Sir Georg was all that you say he was. Like Hillis, he could bring out so much from us, and it felt almost effortless — I never knew how hard I was working until it was over. It was an amazing experience!

    Comment by Drew Oman — October 27, 2012 @ 9:30 am

    • Hi Drew,
      How good to hear from you!
      Thank you for the first-hand account of your experience with Georg Solti.
      It must have been a thrilling experience indeed.
      I am envious!
      Hope all is well.

      Comment by welltemperedear — October 28, 2012 @ 9:51 am

  7. I heard him conduct the Chicago Symphony numerous times. The first time was late in ’78 or early ’79. I was in the audience for video recordings, not subscription concerts. I was immediately struck by the sound he got from the brass players, musicians like Bud Herseth and Dale Clevenger. They recorded, as I recall, six Rossini overtures and Schubert Symphonies 3 and 6. I had just moved to Chicago, and the Solti sound was thrilling.

    Comment by Anders Yocom — October 26, 2012 @ 4:15 pm

    • Hi Anders,
      Thanks for reading and replying.
      It WAS a thrilling sound.
      And you are absolutely right. The Chicago brass was like the Philadelphia strings — a signature.
      It was part of what gave the Solti sound its muscularity or strength.
      And it was distinctive.
      You were lucky to hear him live so often.

      Comment by welltemperedear — October 26, 2012 @ 5:28 pm

  8. Remember Maestro Solti very well. He conducted many times at the Stuttgart Opera. The first time I saw him conduct was “Otello.” Big gestures, a bit brassy from the orchestra. I thought he was larger than life, only to find out that he was my height later at an event.
    I was looking for him, could not find him, I looked for a tall gentleman, there he was, long arms indeed, but as short as I am.

    Comment by Barbara DeMain — October 26, 2012 @ 6:39 am

  9. From the first conductor (under the name CSO) it was Frederick Stock who when asked about orchestration said “I would rather have an orchestra of (all) strings”..and the subsequent conductors: Artur Rodziński, Rafael Kubelík, Fritz Reiner, Jean Martinon, Sir Georg Solti, Daniel Barenboim and Riccardo Muti, Sir George was all that is said to complement him.
    Len Sullivan

    Comment by hi2lenLen Sullivan — October 26, 2012 @ 6:17 am

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