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Solti - Journey of a Lifetime - A film by Georg Wübbolt [52:00]
Featuring contributions from Valerie Solti, Valery Gergiev, Christoph von Dohnányi, Sir Peter Jonas and others.
German and English language with in English, French, Spanish and Korean
Bonus Concert [54:00]:
Mussorgsky Khovanshchina Prelude [6:27]
Prokofiev Symphony No. 1 Classical [15:36]
Shostakovich Symphony No. 1 [28:50]
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Sir Georg Solti
rec. live, Orchestra Hall, Chicago, October 1977
Region Code: 0; Aspect Ratio 16:9 (Documentary), 4:3 (Bonus); PCM Stereo
C MAJOR 711708 [106:00]

Experience Classicsonline

This worthwhile release is timed to coincide with the Solti centenary celebrations of 2012. His larger-than-life personality explodes off the screen in this documentary, which is primarily in German though with some English and with subtitles available throughout. Its approach is primarily biographical and chronological. At only 52 minutes it’s fairly light on insight and interpretation, but it did serve to remind me of how much of an itinerant Solti was, at least in his younger years, and the effect that had on his art.
Born in Hungary, he was beginning to rise to prominence just as the Second World War forced his escape to Switzerland. Spending the war years in Switzerland he was forbidden to work, apart from the odd accompaniment or small concert as a pianist. His first major conducting job came with the Bavarian State Opera after the war, and the film points out how difficult this was for him, a Jew, working with an orchestra of allegedly reconstructed Nazis. Norman Lebrecht, who provides a series of talking heads for the film, summed it up thus: “They glared at him with hatred and he glared at them with hatred, and they got on with the work.” The film shows his time in Frankfurt as his period of maturity before moving on to real greatness at Covent Garden. In fact, one of the commentators claims that under Solti’s leadership Covent Garden rose to heights that they have never achieved since; hmm ... discuss! However, that same commentator points out that, for someone of Solti’s background, to be accepted by the British establishment, even to the point of being knighted by the Queen, was the ultimate acceptance.
His tenure at Chicago is depicted as an ideal meeting of minds. Solti loved to work with the orchestra for its virtuosity and, importantly, its flexibility: he says at one point that, unlike European orchestras, they never question a conductor but were open-minded enough to go along with his ideas. The Chicago musicians in turn, several of whom are interviewed for the film, adored him for raising the orchestra to new heights of musical skill and international fame. One interesting footnote comes with his invitation to take over the Salzburg production of Un Ballo in Maschera in 1989, standing in at only a week’s notice after Karajan’s death. We see some rehearsal footage of him in full flow, and one German commentator lamenting that Salzburg let him slip through their fingers.
Elsewhere in the film there is plenty of footage of him conducting, including the famous section of Humphrey Burton’s Golden Ring film which shows him scything through the air as he conducts Siegfried’s funeral march; it made me feel tired just watching him! Elsewhere, though, it’s the legato of his style that is more interesting, something which also comes up in the concert film. The professional rivalry with Karajan is mentioned briefly. One interesting titbit from Solti’s assistant says that if ever Solti wanted a recording of a work he was learning then it was Karajan’s that he would normally ask for. The assistant claims that Karajan’s people tell him the same was true in reverse! Everyone is very catty about the Orchestre de Paris (“No one ever goes there, except for the money!”), and the dreadful experience of the 1983 Bayreuth Ring is dealt with fairly honestly. The overall impression, though, is of a warm, energetic man who put his art first and who had a predominantly positive effect in the world of music. No doubt other opinions are available, but unsurprisingly you won’t find them here.
It’s interesting to have the coupling of the documentary with the concert: one reawakens interest in the conductor, and the other helps us to see more of him at work. Solti was regularly slated for bitty performances that chopped up the musical line, but it’s the legato that impresses most in the Khovanshchina prelude. The Chicago violins are trippingly light in the “Classical” symphony, loving Prokofiev’s textures. The winds provide a very winning contrast to the bustling strings in the finale. Solti is a bit self-indulgent, though. The slow movement is too slow, galumphing its way towards the Menuet, which is better but still pretty blunt! The Shostakovich, on the other hand, is very fine. The camera doesn’t focus on Solti that often, which is all to the good because it helps to focus the ear on the music rather than the eye on the conductor. Again, the dominant impression I got was one of legato sensitivity rather than virile thrashing, though there’s a bit of that in the finale as the baton goes waving through the air. The strongest moments are the slower sections of the Scherzo and the Lento, both of which are thoughtful and meditative. It helps to remind us that, while the received wisdom on Solti is based on some measure of truth, it’s much too simple. He was more than just a good musician but one of the most significant conductors of the 20th Century, something you had to admit whether you liked his work or you didn’t. This DVD is a useful contribution to the debate on him which, due if nothing else to the sheer size of his discography, shows no sign of dying down.
Simon Thompson 

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