Profile: Immortality is simply not enough: Georg Solti, lightning conductor at 80

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Next Friday, two days after his 80th birthday, Sir Georg Solti returns to Covent Garden to conduct Verdi's Otello with Placido Domingo. Solti, the conductor who for 10 glorious years (1961-71) took the Royal Opera House by the scruff of the neck and put it right up there with La Scala; without doubt, one of the greatest of living conductors and one of the hardest working of this century.

His superhuman efforts at Covent Garden and with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (stretching over 22 years from 1969 to 1991) have been matched by a unparalleled recording career running for more than 45 years and more than 250 LPs. He is wealthy, honoured (he has won 30 Grammys and was knighted in 1972) and a devoted father of two daughters. Why would such a man go, as Solti has recently done, to commission the services of John Stanley, Nigel Kennedy's 'image-maker', whose business it is to make musicians famous?

Solti is famous, world famous; but not, by his own lights, famous enough. He feels that his publicists have not worked hard enough for him. There is a pantheon of legendary 20th-century conductors who are in a dimension of celebrity different from others - Leopold Stokowski, Leonard Bernstein and Herbert von Karajan - and Solti feels he is not up there with them. That irks him, for he is a man driven by his need for adulation. Norman Lebrecht, author of The Maestro Myth - a book that explodes the cult of the great conductors - puts it another way: 'Solti wants more than immortality; he wants to enjoy a secure immortality.'

To this end Solti has pursued perhaps the most energetic and driven career of any 20th-century conductor. His celebrated decade at Covent Garden, from 1961 to 1971, rewarded him with his first burst of international fame.

He had found it hard to adjust to an English way of life after his formative years in Hungary, Switzerland and Germany. At first his style was unpopular with British opera buffs. One night he was assaulted by a cabbage bearing the message 'Solti must go]'; his approach to music-making was considered altogether too middle-European. 'I wanted discipline, precision,' he says. 'I was a Generalmusikdirektor, a martinet. I didn't understand the great British quality of tolerance and I didn't understand the word 'no'. And they called me 'The Prussian' - me, a Hungarian Jew]'.

His beginnings had not prepared him for the aloof world of English opera, where the art has long been confused with social advancement and snobbery. Hedwig Oeschli, his first wife - a well- bred Swiss woman he married while in exile in Switzerland in 1942 - taught him how to get on in polite English society. But it was not until he was knighted in 1972, say friends and colleagues, that he finally felt he had arrived.

Solti was born in Budapest on 21 October 1912. He is coy about his family background; he says only that his father failed in a number of businesses and that, as a boy, he had to help end meets by playing the piano. What we do know is that his family was wiped out during the Holocaust; Georg was playing in Switzerland when war broke out - his mother (who died in 1944) had advised him not to come back.

Neither a practising Jew nor even the mildest Zionist, he has never felt the need to hide his Jewishness. On Hungarian television last year, he launched into a fierce attack on the anti-semitism that still pervades his native country. Asked by a nave young reporter why he had not made his brilliant career in Hungary, he said 'I am a living example of what anti- semitism did. You lost a musician who would have worked in Hungary. You lost millions of peoples' lives.' He feels it a tragedy that neither of his parents lived to enjoy his success.

Solti studied under Bartok (whom he revered) and Kadaly in Budapest, moving on to work as a repetiteur with Toscanini in Salzburg in 1937 and conducting for the first time - Mozart's Figaro - in Budapest a year later when he was just 26. He spent the war years teaching piano in Switzerland. His big break came when he was invited by the occupying American forces to conduct Beethoven's Fidelio at Munich in 1946, when opera tickets were being traded as currency.

Nazi conductors were banned from working at the time, including the man Solti saw as his greatest living rival: Herbert von Karajan. While Solti's family died in concentration camps, von Karajan (a member of the Nazi party from 1933) conducted such works as Richard Trunk's Celebration of the New Front for Hitler, the choral finale of which was based on the 'Horst Wessel' song and included the line 'Jewish blood spurts forth from our knives'.

Much to von Karajan's later chagrin, Solti was invited to record the first and, to date, probably definitive Ring Cycle (Decca, 1958-65). And, to Solti's delight, he was asked to take over what had been von Karajan's favourite post, Director of the Salzburg Easter Festival, last year. When alive, von Karajan had never allowed Solti anywhere near the festival.

The fame Solti achieved at Covent Garden was nothing compared with the celebrity status he achieved during his unbroken spell as musical director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Better paid, less hurried and more secure than their harried English conterparts, the members of the CSO found Solti, if not sweetness and light, much easier to come to terms with than, for example, had the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Time magazine called him 'The fastest baton in the West' and Chicago made Solti a millionaire. He played the stock market, bought rambling, romantic homes in Switzerland, Italy and London (in Chicago he had a suite at the luxurious Mayfair-Regent hotel at his disposal) and travelled the world by private jet. Chicago gave him both the artistic and financial security he had always craved. Neither a mean man nor a spendthrift, Solti - remembering his impecunious upbringing in Budapest - has been known to send penurious musicians money through the post and to have said to members of his orchestras planning to take up other residencies 'if it's a question of money, you must go'.

When a ticket for next week's Otello commands upwards of pounds 1,000 on the black market, Solti should be able to rest the laurels he has heaped up over the past 30 years. Not a bit of it. He has accepted bookings up until the end of the century, refuses to repeat a performance (he always starts with a fresh score) and is looking forward to expanding his exhaustive repertoire.

He remains, at 80, astonishingly fit; short and stocky with a tanned complexion and sparkling hazel eyes, he really does look as if he is in his fifties. He regrets not being able to watch his various gardens grow, but appears to thrive on an adrenalin-charged, peripatetic lifestyle. He is never ill. There is nothing, of course, unusual about a conductor working hard into his eighties, but, like the Flying Dutchman, Solti seems driven by an unceasing quest for love (or public affection); that and an ever elusive musical perfection.

If anything has softened it is the barely concealed violence of his music making. His dynamic renditions of Strauss and Wagner were once described by critics as 'monumental', 'urgent', 'thunderous' and even 'orgasmic'; less charitably they have been said to 'lack heart' and to 'skate over the score'.

He says, however, that his once aggressive treatment of scores (he literally tore these to pieces as he conducted) and orchestras (he has always yelled and shouted at these) has finally mellowed. The man the members of the London Symphony Orchestra called the 'Screaming Skull' - among less polite sobriquets - claims 'I am not shouting any more. I am a softie now and I think my conducting has mellowed too.'

He was anything but a 'softie' in 1960. 'From the first note of the first rehearsal of his first opera at Covent Garden (Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier),' says Howard Nash, principal trombone since 1956, 'Solti demanded 1,000 per cent from us. Every demand he made was an extreme one; he wanted maximum loudness, maximum softness.'

It is not age, says Solti, that has softened him, but his daughters. He is said to have enjoyed many mistresses (each of whom, gossips says, received a white fur coat from the maestro), but there is no doubt that his family has given him a security that his immense success as a musician has, remarkably, failed to do. Perhaps inevitably, he met Valerie in a hotel bedroom. She had gone to interview him at the Savoy for the BBC one afternoon in 1964. Having forgotten all about the interview, Solti was trying to sort out his socks. Valerie came to the rescue; they were married three years later when he was 55 and she was 30.

Of her husband's legendary irascibility, Lady Solti will only say 'he just says what he wants to say. Besides, he's really thinking about the music he's in the middle of'. Of his imperious gestures, she says 'He's Hungarian, you know', as if this explains everything.

'Although his real home is the aeroplane,' says Sir Claus Moser, former chairman of the Royal Opera House and Warden of Wadham College, Oxford, 'he is deeply grateful, as a one-time refugee, to the country that made his name. He is married to a beautiful Englishwoman, his favourite home is in London and both his daughters have attended Oxford for an English education; Gabrielle has just gone down after doing very well at Jesus and Claudia has just come up to Brasenose. He feels proud that, like so many Jewish refugees coming to this country after the Second World War, he has brought out the latent English love of music. England is no longer a 'land without music'.'

'What propels him, even today,' says Norman Lebrecht 'is a sense of duty and gratitude towards the art that saved his life in wartime and the eternal insecurity of the refugee.'