Late in life, Georg Solti (1912–97) harbored no illusions about his brand. "Always people want to characterize me as fiery, temperamental," he told me in Salzburg in the summer of 1992. "Now they say I have a lighter touch. I'm an all-around musician. I've played the piano, done opera, the symphonic literature, everything! Only a doctor should be a specialist, only a surgeon! Not even an internist. But always people try to put a stamp on me. I defend myself, but it always happens."
Privately, I wondered if he wasn't protesting too much. True, many on both sides of the footlights admired his Mozart for its transparency and sense of measure; Bryn Terfel has said that only Solti ever made him feel at home with the title role of Don Giovanni. But in other repertoire, Solti's style was generally extroverted, muscular and matter-of-fact, more concerned with the mechanics of a score than with inner states — in stark contrast to that of his polar opposite, the clairvoyant Herbert von Karajan (1908–89). Whereas Karajan liked to perform with his eyes closed, summoning forth immaculate Platonic sound as if in a trance, Solti led the charge like Geronimo — irrepressible, excitable, hawk eyes aglitter.
A personal reevaluation of Solti began for me several years after his death, at the premiere of a new Met Salome in 2004. On paper, the cast and production team left nothing to be desired. Karita Mattila was on fire. The public went crazy, and the press was over the moon. But for my money, the experience paled beside unexpected mental echoes of Solti's recording. When had I last given it a spin? Probably not in a quarter century. Yet now the timbres, inflections and personalities of his entire cast, from the incandescent Birgit Nilsson down to whoever sang the Page of Herodias and the Second Nazarene, came rushing back to haunt me. No less vivid were the impressions of mingled light and shade, menace and allure, monumentality and finesse that Solti had conjured up for the microphone with the Vienna Philharmonic more than four decades before.
Solti's most celebrated achievement, by a long chalk, was the first studio recording of Der Ring des Nibelungen. Originally released on vinyl between 1958 and 1965, when stereo was state of the art, the set was voted the greatest recording in history by the readers of Gramophone in 1999 and by a panel of professional music critics for BBC Music Magazine in 2011. A veritable legend in his own time, Solti racked up seventy-four Grammy nominations and took home a record thirty-one awards — four ahead of overall runners-up Quincy Jones and Alison Kraus, five more than the classical runner-up Pierre Boulez, a whopping twenty-eight more than his rival Karajan.
In a fitting tribute for the centennial of Solti's birth, Decca — his exclusive label for fifty years — has not only repackaged that Ring more sumptuously than ever but assembled boxes dedicated to the operas of Mozart, Verdi, Wagner and Richard Strauss. A mostly orchestral Bartók collection includes a searing account of Bluebeard's Castle, riveting in its evocation of moods and spaces. Bonus tracks document the maestro's brisk, Continental authority in rehearsal and in the recording studio, where producers of the early stereo age assembled opera albums take by take, like movies for the ear. Over playback of Isolde's narrative and curse, he lets slip that he let Nilsson hold a note a little longer than written. "Wagner," he declares, "never heard it as good." That could be true.
If the operatic emphasis of Decca's tribute seems strange, it shouldn't. Before taking over the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1969, Solti saw successive tours of duty as music director of the Bavarian State Opera, in Munich; Frankfurt Opera; and Covent Garden Opera Company, which under his leadership acquired its royal charter. As guest conductor at the Met from 1960 to 1964, he led thirty-five performances of Tannhäuser, Tristan und Isolde, Otello,Boris Godunov, Aida and Don Carlo, wrapping up with two concerts in memory of John F. Kennedy. (Improbably, the program coupled Act III, scene 1, of Parsifal with the Verdi Requiem.)
Rare and unpublished souvenirs of those largely forgotten years (even including bits of Berg and Britten) show up on Decca's two-CD centennial party favor Solti: The Legacy, 1937–1997. The most antique of these curios, from a Salzburg Zauberflöte under Arturo Toscanini, finds Willi Domgraf-Fassbänder's Papageno skipping through "Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen," while the maestro's assistant — a sorcerer's apprentice named Georg Solti — manhandles the glockenspiel. In a Salzburg Zauberflöte of his own in 1991, available on DVD, Solti took up that instrument again, this time scattering fairy dust. But the "light touch" of his later years was really nothing new. His piano accompaniment for tenor Max Lichtegg's nimble account of Schubert's "Abschied," vintage 1947, is wrought all in lace.
Could Solti the cartoon be disappearing at last? Let's hope so. On disc, Solti stands before us in the round for what he was — a working musician, a hard-working musician, one of the first rank.