, August 2011
I’m too young to have seen Sir Georg Solti in concert; watching him in action on ICA Classics’s DVD demonstrates what I’d always suspected listening to his recordings. It’s a clichéd phrase, but it seems apt in this case: Solti was a ‘force of nature’, barely able to contain the fizzing energy he demonstrated on the podium and his physical gestures confirm my long held impression of him as an almost violently demonstrative conducting presence. Solti hacks and cuts through the air with flailing arms, determined to communicate every ounce of the pulverising energy he wants to extract from whichever score is before him. In the earliest film on this disc, Solti wrings all of the power out of Wagner’s Flying Dutchman Overture, arms flapping in a manner that you couldn’t call graceful. Ultimately, in this 1963 BBC studio performance with the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, his taut and driven Wagner is pushed too far, but elsewhere his relentless approach worked—how many of us heard The Ring for the first time in his ultra vivid stereo Decca recordings and were hooked for life?
Appropriately, Solti is seen in conversation with John Culshaw, acclaimed producer of that seminal Ring. Culshaw is a relaxed interviewer in a segment featuring conversation and rehearsal on Strauss’s Don Juan. Solti never sits still—that same restless energy as evident on the sofa as on the podium—but the rehearsal and performance footage of Don Juan shows Solti much more receptive to its quieter moments than his Dutchman conducting let on. It’s a shame that the rehearsal footage offers no English Subtitles as Solti’s voice doesn’t always carry as far as the nearest microphone and his comments are often delivered extremely quickly. One revealing nugget that is heard perfectly is his instruction to the orchestra that it ‘doesn’t matter if it’s the wrong note, I’d much prefer a good rhythm’. Solti was, after all, all about the rhythm. With Culshaw, Solti speaks about his experiences of Strauss, right at the end of the composer’s life—I didn’t know, for example, that Solti had conducted at Strauss’s funeral—and his comments about the work’s programme are genuinely enlightening. It is a shame, though, that a picture of Strauss fills the screen at the outset of the eventual performance, meaning that we don’t get to see how Solti launches into the extremely difficult upward surge that begins the whole wonderful work.
An Ethiopian relief concert gives us a view of Solti almost two decades later, conducting Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. This 1985 performance, given at the Royal Albert Hall, again proves Solti’s concern for rhythmic vitality above all else, but he is noticeably more contained on the podium than in the 1960s films. The first movement is trenchant and not particularly swift and the Andante that follows is carefully paced. Most impressive are the taut and concentrated final moments of the finale, in which Solti finds a tempo which makes Beethoven’s series of almost-conclusions seems little less over-egged than usual. The BBC Symphony play well for Solti, though there are a few issues of ensemble in the third movement; an upwards glance is all Solti gives away by way of concern, though.
Solti’s Dutchman is not helped by a poor audio production, rendering the sound quality little better than a mid-1940s radio broadcast—how much of the wind section’s apparent poor form is rather due to the wretched sound is something we’ll never know. The Strauss fares better, although initially it seems startlingly glossy in the treble after the Wagner. Considering the Beethoven hails from the digital era, one might have expected better sound quality than the BBC—who made the original broadcast—provided; it’s narrowly focused and dynamic contrasts are dulled somewhat, but it doesn’t detract from the performance too much. It’s worth pointing out that none of this is the fault of ICA Classics, who have served up another enlightening and enjoyable slice of classical music’s televisual past.