Georg Solti

Born: 1912
Died: 1997

Sir Georg Solti was one of the most respected and – through his ground-breaking recordings with producer John Culshaw – influential conductors of the 20th century. A pupil of Bartók, Weiner and Dohnányi in Budapest, Solti worked with Toscanini in Salzburg. He headed the opera in Frankfurt before taking over the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. In 1969 he became music director of the Chicago SO, a post he kept for 22 years; he also held positions with the LPO and Orchestre de Paris. An exclusive Decca artist he left a vast discography of which the complete Ring is perhaps the jewel.

Gramophone had a long association with Georg Solti. His first appearance in the magazine was not as a conductor, but as a pianist, in a review of a recording of Brahms’s First Violin Sonata, Op 78, that he made with violinist Georg Kulenkampff for Decca (2/48). It concludes, ‘The work of the partners in this sonata is particularly apt, neat, gracious, without the least sentimentality: with perhaps even a trace of dryness that does not at all connote dullness: rather it is the opposite of sweetness, as in wine. There is a curious little inward withdrawnness in the finale, I feel: very typical Brahms, musing happily, self-contained, always solitary, yet the philosopher who cannot demand love, only offer it sullenly.’ 

It would be a further two years before Solti the conductor was to make a significant impression in Gramophone. The review of his recording of Verdi’s La forza del Destino Overture with the LPO (also for Decca, 2/50) begins, ‘A first-rate recording: tonally, the best I remember.’ And later in the year (7/50) his first recording of Haydn’s Symphony No 103 would be greeted even more warmly, ‘The performance of the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Georg Solti (a fine conductor who is new to me) is remarkable for rhythmic playing, richness of tone, and clarity of execution.’

The momentum of Solti’s remarkable career was palpably beginning to build. Several recordings, including Beethoven’s Fourth (5/51) and Mendelssohn’s Third (3/53) – both with the LPO – and Mozart’s 23rd and 38th (11/54) – with the LSO, were to follow in quick succession. But it was in 1958 that Decca released the first instalment of one of the most ambitious recording projects in history – with Solti on the rostrum: Wagner’s Ring cycle. 

Outside the recording studio, Solti was making a considerable reputation for himself, particularly in the opera house. His first post was as director at the Munich Staatsoper from 1946-52, and he made his Glyndebourne debut conducting Fidelio in 1954, followed by his Covent Garden debut with Der Rosenkavalier in 1959. In 1961, Solti was chosen to become music director of Covent Garden. This was the same year that he recorded Richard Strauss’s Salome starring Birgit Nilsson and featuring the Vienna Philharmonic. 

In 1966, Solti followed up this triumphant Salome with an equally astounding recording of Elektra, again starring Birgit Nilsson.

The 1960s were a pivotal decade for Solti. At Covent Garden he was music director of one of the world’s great opera houses. In the April 1968 issue of Gramophone, Alan Blyth went to Covent Garden to speak to Solti about his life and career. As part of a typically revealing Blyth interview, Solti’s views on modern music were exposed: ‘When I don't know and probably will never know half the music of Handel why should I start worrying about electronic music? I'm not a reactionary and I am interested in what is happening. But the under 35's must look after it. The past three centuries have produced an unbelievable storehouse of works and one just must stop somewhere.’ 

Edward Greenfield, too, experienced a Solti recording session first-hand in the August 1981 issue and was amazed by what he saw. Later, EG was to write one of the definitive accounts of Solti’s life and career for Gramophone to mark Solti’s 75th birthday in the October 1987 issue.

But even at 75 there was no sign of Solti slowing down. In September 1989 Stephen Johnson interviewed Solti about two new career firsts: his first ever live concert recordings, and his first recording of a Shostakovich symphony (the Eighth). And in the course of the interview, Johnson wondered whether Solti listened to his own recordings? ‘I don't listen to them. In fact I don't listen to my records at all because my taste is always changing. After a while you don't hear the good points any more – you just hear the bad things. I did listen once to the opening of my Rhinegold on CD because somebody told me that the sound was amazing. So I listened to the first F flat chord on the double basses, and I thought “Yes, it is”, and that was enough so I turned it off.’ 

In his final years, Solti spoke regularly to Gramophone, always being open about his views on music and his creative processes. 

When Solti passed away at the age of 84, his Gramophone obituary was movingly written by Ray Minshull, head of the classical division of Decca, the company that Solti had remained loyal to from his first recordings as a pianist accompanying Georg Kulenkampff. But he was always protective of his position at the top of the Decca tree, as the obituary reveals: ‘Of course Solti sought to deter other conductors from invading the territory within his record company, and naturally he was distressed when I told him that we were making a record with Karajan again. When I had to say that we were in serious discussion with Leonard Bernstein, who also wanted to make more records with us, he simply put his cards on the table, and said that for every record that Karajan or Bernstein made with Decca, he would feel morally and legally justified and free to make one for another company.’ 

Gramophone’s relationship with Georg Solti was a particularly close one, he graced the magazine’s cover on no fewer than nine occasions and shared the experience of making his greatest recordings with Gramophone at every possible opportunity.

Solti: a tribute by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet

'The more I grow in my life as musician, the more the example of Sir Georg shines in my private pantheon. With his always-ongoing energy, insatiable curiosity and desire to meet and help the younger generation, he showed us how a career should be built progressively and organically in order to achieve one’s own artistic goal. I feel extremely fortunate to have had the chance to meet Sir Georg in the last three years of his life when he was extremely generous to share with me his extremely precise and powerful musical ideas. 

He also gave me the best advice: "Never give up, keep working, there is always room at the top!"'


© MA Business and Leisure Ltd. 2014