Jessica Duchen looks back at the life of a great conductor and musical personality. Watch the full interview with Lady Solti at the bottom of Jessica's article.
‘Never give up’. Sir Georg Solti’s motto has a message for us all – and so does his musical legacy. This year marks the great conductor’s centenary. And while the achievements of many maestros often pass into the realms of history at such a moment, Solti’s are, in certain ways, growing stronger than ever.
Solti’s remarkable personality suffused his musicianship: a blazing, ferocious energy surrounded him on and off the podium. BBC Music Magazine recently voted his recording of Wagner’s Ring cycle the greatest recording ever made. And visiting Lady Valerie Solti at the couple’s London home, the Sinfini team was moved to see a magnificent row of Grammy awards in the studio: Solti won more of them than even The Beatles.
‘He inspired people around him to do things they never thought they could,’ Lady Solti remembers. ‘That went together with his drive and his “never give up” motto, and that made it possible for him to create this great recording [of the Ring].’ His liveliness, focus and persuasiveness travelled with him: to Vienna, where the Ring was recorded, to London, where he was music director of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden from 1961 to 1971, and to Chicago, where his tenure as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra lasted from 1969 for 22 years and where he was subsequently music director laureate until his death.
The Solti concerts I attended are among my most treasured musical memories; for instance, his account of Mahler’s Symphony No.5 at the Royal Festival Hall in 1988 remains vivid in my mind for its unparalleled kaleidoscopic intensity, complexity and emotional edginess. His recording legacy is an Aladdin’s cave, reflecting his matter-of-life-and-death approach to repertoire from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte to Bartók’s Cantata Profana – a work that held great personal significance for him, thanks to his background as a Hungarian in exile.
Born in rural Hungary in 1912, Solti studied at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest, where his teachers included Zoltán Kodály, Leo Weiner and Bela Bartók himself. A superb pianist, he began his professional life as an opera repetiteur. By lucky chance asked to play for Mozart rehearsals in Salzburg, he attracted the approbation of Arturo Toscanini. But with the onset of the Nazis’ racial laws, which the Hungarian government emulated, Solti, being Jewish, found himself thrown out of his post in Budapest. Alfred Fellner, the chairman of the Friends of the Budapest Opera, advised him to travel to Lucerne to ask Toscanini for a letter of recommendation, and gave him his train fare. That gesture, which made his journey to Switzerland possible, saved Solti’s life. War broke out while he was away; he did not return.
Today the Solti Foundation pays tribute to this history by providing grants to young musicians for professional development. That is just one part of Solti’s ongoing legacy, which also extends to a top-level summer school in Tuscany for young opera singers, the Georg Solti Accademia; and the World Orchestra for Peace, which he founded two years before his death in 1997, uniting professional musicians from all over the world in a symbol of international cooperation.
This autumn, the Royal Opera House dedicated a Ring cycle to his memory and mounted a foyer exhibition about him; the World Orchestra for Peace also performed a centenary concert in Chicago, with its conductor Valery Gergiev – who took over on Solti’s death. A new TV documentary is in preparation, too. Solti himself is no longer with us, but his unquenchable energy lives on.
Solti in-depth interviews
We have filmed five extended interviews with his widow, Lady Valerie Solti. Watch the first on the Early life of Sir Georg Solti.
Solti's legendary recording of Wagner's Ring cycle was reissued as a luxury boxset in September 2012. You can read Warwick Thompson's review here.