Classical: An honourable homecoming - at last

In his lifetime, Sir Georg Solti was deemed persona non grata in his homeland, irrespective of the regime in power. Mark Pappenheim watched Budapest finally pay tribute to him

Residents of Maros Utca, a quiet backstreet down behind the castle mound in Buda, the western half of Budapest, had their Saturday morning lie-ins rudely interrupted last weekend as a pair of police cars pulled up outside No 29. Within minutes, the unassuming little four-storey apartment house had been cordoned off with tape, and a brace of speakers set up on stands either side of the big front door. By 10 o'clock, a small crowd had begun to gather, their attention fixed upon a plaque newly mounted on the wall above the post-box. Curious neighbours craned their necks out of upstairs windows; an elderly woman gingerly picked her way through the throng towards the shops; a couple of coaches, then a Mercedes-Benz drew up; and finally, as two men from the Ministry marched solemnly up to the microphones, martial music began to play.

A typical scene from the old eastern bloc? Not quite. For the crowd and the plaque and all the palaver were there to mark the birthplace not of some national hero of state socialism but of one Stern Gyorgy, better known as Georg Solti, and a man who, for most of his long life, and irrespective of whether fascists or communists were in charge, was deemed persona non grata in his own homeland.

And the music? The slow movement from Beethoven's Fifth - the work whose chance hearing, at the age of 14, had first set Sir Georg (or Sir Solti, as the Hungarians endearingly call him) on course to become one of the world's great conductors.

The speeches over, the floral tributes laid before the plaque (the "Maestro" in profile, baton raised in readiness), the brief ceremony ended with another burst of music: the closing bars of Bartok's Cantata Profana.

This 1930 work (first heard, as it happens, on the BBC) tells of a deer- hunter's nine sons, who cross a magic bridge and are themselves transformed into stags, the very objects of their father's chase. When the hunter nevertheless begs his sons to come back home, the eldest replies that they cannot: their antlers are now too wide to pass through the door.

In his autobiography, Solti on Solti, completed barely hours before his sudden death last September, the then 84-year-old conductor described how, while performing the piece in Berlin that February, its autobiographical significance had suddenly struck him: he too was a stag, whose antlers - the historical circumstances of his life (not least as a European Jew in the 20th century) - had prevented his returning home.

Last June he did just that - not in fact for the very first time since fleeing to Switzerland in August 1939 (although, until the fall of the Berlin Wall, his visits could have been counted on the fingers of one hand) - but to make what was his very first recording with Hungarian artists on Hungarian soil. Sadly, it was also to be his last.

In the light of his death just six weeks later, the programme he chose, comprising Kodaly's Psalmus Hungaricus and Leo Weiner's Serenade, as well as the Bartok Cantata - three works by the three composers under whom he had studied at the Liszt Academy - assumes almost prophetic significance. During the sessions, Sir Georg made a day-trip to his ancestral village by the shores of Lake Balaton and saw for the first time the graves of his grandparents. As he recalled in his book, after 60 years of exile (the last few spent in St John's Wood, north London), he at last felt a sense of belonging: "The stag had returned home; his antlers had been able to pass through the door, because during his absence the doorway had become taller and wider."

And certainly, after death, the new authorities in Hungary were keen to welcome him back in style. Following the dedication of the birthplace plaque, a more formal ceremony was held last Saturday afternoon at the Liszt Academy, over the river in Pest. Downstairs, in the art-nouveau entrance hall, the maestro's earthly remains lay in state, bedecked with white lilies, while three floors up, a brand-new Steinway grand (the first of three which the Solti Foundation is giving to the conductor's old school) took pride of place in Room 23 - site of Leo Weiner's legendary chamber- music classes and the room where Solti always said he learnt most. Kaddish was heard (courtesy of Ravel and Charles Piker, principal violist with Solti's old orchestra, the Chicago Symphony); speeches were made - one by Istvan Szabo, the film director (with whom Solti had hoped to work on a screen version of Bartok's Bluebeard opera), pulling no punches about Hungary's sorry history of rejecting its brightest native talents; a children's chorus sang a folksong by Kodaly; a couple of Japanese music students pushed through the crowd carrying a takeaway pizza. And then it was time for Solti's ashes to be driven back across the Danube, to the Farkasreti Cemetery, to be laid to rest beside his fellow exile Bela Bartok's grave (still deep in birthday bouquets from three days before).

At first, we in the press had been asked not to attend. Then we were invited after all, provided we stood well back and took no pictures. With hindsight, I wish I hadn't gone. For, as Solti's ashes finally disappeared under ground, it was clear that, caught between his country's desire to honour a new national hero and his record company's campaign to launch his last CD, his friends and family were there to bury not just a musician, albeit an icon of the international record industry and the face on 250 album covers, but a man, his widow's husband and his daughters' father - and they should have been allowed to do so in private.

Sunday night's closing concert of the Budapest Spring Festival, however, was a properly public "in memoriam". The programme was the same as that on Solti's last CD, the orchestra, choruses and soloists too largely identical, and, had death not intervened, Solti himself would have been there at the Convention Centre to conduct it. In his absence, the task fell to the Budapest Festival Orchestra's own Ivan Fischer.

Comparisons with Solti's own recording would be invidious: suffice it to say that, in Weiner's genially smiling Serenade, Fischer and his players managed to sound almost as young and sprightly as the 84-year-old Maestro (the woodwind soloists especially enjoyed their moments in the limelight in the nostalgically bittersweet third movement Andantino); that tenor Andras Molnar achieved a real sense of unearthly ecstasy in the arching, almost hebraically-inflected closing melisma of the Bartok Cantata (relishing the visionary promise of those "cool mountain springs" from which, rather than their father's silver goblets, the nine son/stags must henceforth drink); while, in the Kodaly, tenor Peter Kelen, singing from memory, seemed completely as one with the intemperate ravings of King David against his enemies. In the context of the evening, the Psalm's closing lines - "He whom you made to taste bitterness... you raise him up again in honour" - took on a whole new meaning.

After that, there could have been no better encore than the Priests' March from Mozart's Magic Flute - the quiet promise of life's trials triumphantly negotiated.

Sir Georg Solti: The Last Recording is on Decca 458 929-2

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