OBITUARY: Sir Georg Solti

Noel Goodwin
Sunday 23 October 2011 08:40

Georg Solti was an international figure acclaimed as one of the great conductors of his generation. His work in the opera house, on the concert platform and in the recording studio touched several peaks. They included his 10 years as Music Director at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (1961-71), as Artistic Director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for over 20 years (1969-91) and of the London Philharmonic Orchestra (1979- 83).

Born Hungarian (as Gyorgy Stern, in 1912), he became a British subject in 1972, thereby acquiring the right to the title conferred by his appointment as KBE the previous year in acknowledgement of his work at Covent Garden. On taking up this post he announced his intention to make Covent Garden "quite simply, the best opera house in the world", and in the opinion of many he did so, though his tenure was sometimes stormy: "You arrive with hosannas and then comes the crucifixion. I wasn't ready for the crucifixion because I didn't know enough about the British character."

After leaving there he explained: "I have never been a specialist and now I want less than ever to be a specialist. Never stick to what you are famous for, never become a cliche. Always, always I fight the cliche." That sense of purpose informed his command of orchestras as well as his interpretations, not least in Richard Strauss and Wagner, whose Der Ring des Nibelungen Solti was the first to record complete and helped to make 1960s classical best- sellers.

Though he professed no religious orthodoxy ("I'm religious, not in a formal way, but in believing seriously in the high order of the world"), he was born a Jew and this affected his early career. From childhood piano lessons and a public debut at the age of 12 he went the next year to the Liszt Academy at Budapest, where his teachers included Bartk and Dohnnyi for piano, Kodly for composition. He joined the Budapest Opera as a repetiteur, worked with Toscanini at the 1936 and 1937 Salzburg Festivals, and made his conducting debut in Le nozze di Figaro at Budapest in 1938.

Finding Jews barred from contract appointments at the Budapest Opera, he left in 1939 hoping to further his career elsewhere. Warned by his mother against returning, he became confined to Switzerland by the outbreak of war. No labour permits were forthcoming to work as a conductor, so he returned to the piano and voice-coaching, and won first prize at the 1942 Geneva International Piano Competition, which brought engagements to help him through the war years.

He was still determined on a conducting career, and a chance acquaintance brought him an invitation to conduct Fidelio at Munich in 1946; his appointment as Music Director at the Bavarian State Opera there followed (1946-52), and the foundation of the company's post-war repertory and reputation under his direction. He was then 33, and from the first secure base in his life he began to tour widely, making his British debut in 1949 with the LPO (after some initial gramophone records with them), and conducting Don Giovanni at Glyndebourne in 1954.

Solti moved to Frankfurt as General Music Director, 1952-60, where he was heard and invited to conduct Der Rosenkavalier at Covent Garden by the Earl of Harewood, then on the opera house staff. He did so in 1959 with such success that he was offered the music directorship left vacant by Rafael Kubelik. Highlights of the Solti decade included the British premiere of Moses und Aron (Schoenberg), the first production there of Die Frau ohne Schatten (Strauss), the Ring cycles and Britten's Billy Budd and A Midsummer Night's Dream.

A volatile, dynamic platform figure, prematurely bald, he galvanised orchestras to a pitch of sustained excitement which could make some performances sound hard-driven (Mozart particularly). Musicians spoke of an almost devilish flicker in his eyes while conducting (one labelled him "the screaming skull"), and his intense commitment sometimes exacerbated relationships with singers and others. But he insisted he was "a romantic at heart" and in later years he was professionally more relaxed.

He made pioneering use of stereo recording techniques both for symphonic music and in simulating the theatrical dimension of opera, notably in association with John Culshaw, Decca's innovative recording producer. Their records won a number of international awards, as have others conducted by Solti in the 30 years from Long-Play stereo to compact disc, though he seldom listened again once they were finished: "I hate going back to my old records."

His American career developed concurrently after his making his debut there with the San Francisco Opera in 1953 (in Elektra). A contract for Los Angeles was about to be signed when he accepted the Covent Garden invitation instead. He first went to Chicago as Artistic Director in 1969, overlapping his first two seasons at Covent Garden, and quickly established a rapport with an orchestra of whom he later said: "It's a marvellous thing to be musically happily married. I am, and I know."

This mirrored a more settled phase in his personal life after his divorce in 1966 from his first wife, Hedi Oeschli, whom he met and married in Switzerland. His second marriage in 1967 was to Valerie Pitts, 25 years his junior, after meeting her as a London television reporter sent to interview him; they had two daughters, Gabrielle and Claudia. His main home was in London, with others in Italy and Switzerland. Although English was long his principal language, he never lost a "goulash accent" which spiced his vivid conversation on rare off-duty occasions.

He additionally took on the Principal Conductorship of L'Orchestre de Paris, 1971-75, for part of that time serving also as Music Adviser to the Paris Opera. In 1983 he worked with Sir Peter Hall in staging a new production of the Ring operas at the Bayreuth Festival which caused some controversy. In 1986 he returned to the concert platform as a pianist for the first time in 40 years, at the Aldeburgh Festival and in London in aid of musical charities.

He hated any sort of retirement, saying, "I would be unbearable and I could not wish that on my family", and continued musically active throughout his eighties, with an engagement to conduct Verdi's Requiem at the BBC Proms in London next Friday and a South Bank concert with the LPO later this month. In 1995 he launched a scheme to promote a personal choice of young talent in London, underwriting costs of a recital he hoped would become an annual event. Through his combination of physical energy, authority, artistic perception and sensibility, Sir Georg Solti left an enduring imprint of his personality on more than 50 years of musical performance the world over.

Gyorgy Stern (Georg Solti), conductor: born Budapest 21 October 1912; conductor and pianist, State Opera, Budapest 1930-39; Musical Director, Bavarian State Opera 1946-52; Musical Director, Frankfurt Opera, and Permanent Conductor, Museums, Concerts, Frankfurt 1952-61; Musical Director, Covent Garden Opera Company 1961-71 (Musical Director Laureate, Royal Opera 1992); CBE (Hon) 1968, KBE 1971; Music Director, Chicago Symphony Orchestra 1969- 91 (Music Director Laureate); Musical Director, Orchestre de Paris 1972- 75; Principal Conductor and Artistic Director, London Philharmonic Orchestra 1979-83 (Conductor Emeritus); Artistic Director, Salzburg Easter Festival 1992-93; married 1946 Hedwig Oeschli (marriage dissolved 1966), 1967 Valerie Pitts (two daughters); died Antibes, France 5 September 1997.

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