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'Very vain' Solti, just made for the mikes

In 100th-birthday issues, hear conductor's high-voltage greatness.

Sir Georg Solti with his 30th Grammy Award in 1992. He won 32 in all, and worried that Michael Jackson would best him. MALCOLM CLARKE / AP
Sir Georg Solti with his 30th Grammy Award in 1992. He won 32 in all, and worried that Michael Jackson would best him. MALCOLM CLARKE / APRead more

Of all the great conductors of the 20th century, Sir Georg Solti was the one who never quite arrived in Valhalla.

Though he lived and conducted longer than two of his starrier contemporaries, Leonard Bernstein and Herbert von Karajan, Solti (1912-1997) achieved only temporary immortality for the Wagner Ring cycle he recorded between 1958 and 1965, which is periodically named one of the great classical recordings of all time. Solti was a Grammy Award magnet, winning 32, an all-time, still-unrivaled record for any artist, classical or popular. Yet when he died, so did his reputation.

You could wonder why in the face of the Solti@100 barrage of Decca-label reissues in his just-ended 100th birthday year. The first wave mostly emphasizes his opera recordings, barely touching his hugely successful discography with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which he headed from 1969 to 1991. The surprise is how durable the recordings now seem, even ones that received mixed reviews at first. And recordings that were acclaimed still hold their place, including his Ring cycle, despite serious competition from later recordings.

The Strauss operas Elektra and Salome are peerless. Making allowances for changes in Mozart performance practice over the last few decades, his opera recordings of that composer stand tall. His Verdi recordings, Aida and Un Ballo in Maschera, are among the very best out there.

Why was a 100th birthday necessary to reappreciate him? Solti wasn't anybody's idea of a glamorous conductor. Though he was a handsome man with a high-wattage smile, his conducting technique was utilitarian. In the excellent ICA Classics video of him conducting the Chicago Symphony in Brahms' Symphony No. 1, he doesn't act out the music - he makes sure everything is operating correctly and lets the emotionalism take care of itself.

In rehearsals, he could seem demented, shouting and jumping until the orchestra gave him what he wanted. During a Parsifal recording session, he accidentally stabbed himself with his own baton. During playbacks, he resembled a man in an electric chair. His emphatic manner and slightly tilted walk gave him the appearance of an italic exclamation point.

"We thought he was on pills," comments one Chicago Symphony musician in a new documentary by Georg Wübbolt, Sir Georg Solti: Journey of a Lifetime.

He gave delightfully indiscreet interviews, claiming Chicago should erect a statue to him and openly fretting that Michael Jackson would overtake his Grammy count. "My dear," he told one interviewer in his characteristic hoarse whisper, "I'm a vain man. I'm a very vain man." He trashed some of his own recordings and excoriated singers who canceled on him.

As omnipresent as he was, though, Solti was often out of step with the symphonic zeitgeist. Growing up in Budapest, where he counted Béla Bartók among his teachers, Solti emigrated to Switzerland on the eve of World War II, and for decades was one of the few musicians from the fierce Hungarian tradition to have international prominence.

After the war, being Jewish worked in his favor while many German and Austrian conductors were stalled by their de-Nazification trials - yet he encountered anti-Semitism among his closest colleagues.

Though older conductors found the recording process constricting and tedious in the postwar rise of the LP record, Solti rarely met a microphone he didn't like.

Many artists believe that, in the musical equivalent to screen acting, they have to pull back for the intimacy of the microphone, but Solti gave more to compensate for performers' not being physically present, and did so in a volatile Hungarian manner that says tough is beautiful, surface luster is a by-product of clean music making, and art, like life, isn't always seamless.

In what became a great meeting of the minds, Decca recording producer John Culshaw imaginatively collaborated with Solti to exploit sonic depth of field afforded by stereo sound with realistic staging effects. One of the session photos for Elektra shows soprano Birgit Nilsson clutching a hatchet.

In many ways, though, the best reintroduction to Solti is not any one of the massive Decca boxes - his 36-disc Wagner, 15-disc Strauss, 15-disc Mozart, 16-disc Verdi, or 7-disc Bartók - but the relatively modest two-disc Solti: The Legacy 1937-1997, which is mostly live and previously unreleased. The electricity is astounding in Andrea Chenier with Renata Tebaldi and Richard Tucker. Even when Solti played glockenspiel in The Magic Flute under Arturo Toscanini at the 1937 Salzburg Festival, you hear his high-voltage touch.

Returning to his well-known studio recordings, one senses something beyond the Solti bombast about which critics complained. Even the most lavishly orchestrated works have a tightly coiled spine. This is where Solti was perhaps out of step in his final years; though Karajan and Bernstein grew increasingly contemplative - prompting younger conductors to slow their tempos - he did not. But Solti performances that once seemed rigid and hurried now seem cogent.

Singers gave their best for him - even those who despised him, such as Jon Vickers in Aida. Some of his Ring casting falls strangely on modern ears - tenor James King is wooden, and Hans Hotter, for all his artistry, is awfully asthmatic. But his Verdi singers are lean and hot. In Salome, Nilsson lightens her voice to create a restrained, girlish quality.

The recordings have some clinkers - Leontyne Price was past her best in Ariadne auf Naxos - but all great conductors have embarrassing moments. And Solti had much bad luck in his final years, from his ill-fated tenure with Orchestre de Paris to his 1983 Ring at Bayreuth to his haphazard Die Frau ohne Schatten recording.

But Solti's stature rises when one considers what followed him. Gustavo Dudamel and Yannick Nézet-Séguin are restoring Soltian excitement to the podium, but the generation in between often seemed hesitant to commit to a point of view.

In Solti's own time, critics talked about the choice between "Solti's earth" and "Karajan's sky." The difference now is that Solti's earth is more inviting, ruts and all.