Sunday, September 24, 2017
In one Herculean, heroic programme, Stravinsky's Firebird, Petroushka and The Rite of Spring, with Simon Rattle conducting the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Hall, London. Rattle believes in what he does and he does it extremely well. Rattle offers a vision of what the arts might be in Britain if policies predicated not in dumbing down but smarting up. This is how classical music should be presented, with verve, imagination and flair. And excellence, without which "education" in itself means nothing. Something of Gergiev's tortured genius rubbed off on the LSO, even if his visits were brief and unpredictable. Rattle's been conducting Stravinsky since his youth - many in the audience grew uo with his recordings with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. He's also conducted a lot of Stravinsky with the Berliner Philharmoniker. This saga of a programme was a test of stamina. Rattle and the LSO must have been exhausted by the end. In two and a half hours we traversed the revolution that changed modern music, ballet and modern art forever. This performance was more than a concert. It re-created the exhilaration that Stravinsky and his contemporaries might have felt in those brief years when the Ballets Russe ventured fearlessly into the new and thrilling. The sense of occasion seemed to inspire the LSO, who were playing with greater pizzazz and animation than they've done in a long time. A superb Firebird, in its true colours from 1910. The Suite is all very well but this full version allows the legend to unfold properly, displaying its true glories. All music for dance respects the human body, turning physical limitations into art. In The Firebird, dance literally takes flight, for the Firebird is an immortal with magical powers, who defies the bounds of nature. As orchestral music The Firebird is liberated, the music flying free. A wonderful sense of portent in this performance, low winds moaning, harps and strings sparkling. The finesse of LSO musicianship : every detail defined with crystalline clarity. A virtual jewelbox come alive, colours shining like gems viewed through light. Yet Rattle's instinct for drama enhanced the underlying sadness in the piece: the Prince, like Kaschchey the Immortal, cannot remain unchanged. Thus the seductive oboes and cors anglais and the mournful bassoons. In The Firebird, Stravinsky was also paying tribute to Rimsky-Korakov's Kaschchey The Immortal and even to The Legend of The Invisible City of Kitezh. so the piece is haunted. Please read my piece Lost No More on the connections between Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky. Stravinsky's Petrushka tells a story couched in folklore terms, but it's also an allegory of ritual magic. The puppets aren't masters of their fate. They act out a timeless show of love and loss. Thus the stylized sequences, ideally suited for choreography : decidedly non-symphonic. Yet Petrushka also works in oddly concerto-like form, the Petrushka theme on different instruments interacting with the orchestral whole. Petrushka outfoxes the Magician and rises from the dead. Rattle shaped the piece carefully, showing how the "fragmented" structure works as a kind of ritual procession. From Stravinsky to Messaien, more connections than one might expect. Vivid "Russian" images evoked by the colours in the orchestra. And, at last The Rite of Spring. The journey from Kaschchey to the Twentieth Century is reached, through an invocation of primeval earth magic. The future glimpsed through prehistory. Rattle shaped the huge angular blocks of sound so they felt like shifting tectonic plates, the cymbals crashing like lava exploding from the core of the Earth. Yet even more impressive the elusive "vernal" theme that rises, organically, like a miracle from the chaos. Listen again on BBC Radio 3. Please see my pieces on the other major concerts in the LSO's This is Rattle series at the Barbican : National Treasures : British Composers Elgar, Birtwistle, Ades, Knussen and Grimes Blazing Berlioz : the Damnation of Faust
Sir Simon Rattle conducting the LSO. photo Tristram Kenton, courtesy LSO "This is Rattle" the title of a ten-day Barbican festival inaugurating Sir Simon Rattle as new Music Director at the London Symphony Orchestra. There's a lot more to being Music Director than conducting. Rattle is a brilliant communicator whose enthusiasm fires up those around him. He's the best possible ambassador for the LSO, the Barbican and for British music all round. This concert could mark an historic occasion. Will Rattle revitalize the LSO and London, as he transformed the City of Birmingham and its Symphony Orchestra ? Will Rattle succeed single handedly in reversing the insular philistinism that's plaguing this nation? In our celebrity-obsessed age, you need a celebrity to reach the masses. If the new concert hall for London is ever built - and it should be - somehow Rattle's role should be recognized. This inaugural concert of the new LSO and Barbican season might, in time, prove an historic occasion.And now, to the music! An all-British programme proving that British music is alive and thriving. When Sir Edward Elgar was "Britain's Greatest Living Composer", his music was often associated with Birmingham. Rattle's Elgar credentials go way back Thus the Enigma Variations, its cheerful geniality matching the occasion. Once Elgar was "new music". But good music keeps evolving. Britain's "Greatest Living Composer" is now Sir Harrison Birtwistle, so original that his contemporaries, alive or not, don't come close.Birtwistle's Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (2010-11) is classic Birtwistle. It operates on several simultaneous layers, moving in well defined patterns, proceeding with the deliberation of ritual magic. It also connects to Birtwistle's operas and music theatre. The soloist, Christian Tetzlaff, for whom it was commissioned, always hold centre stage, the orchestra acting like a chorus. A rumbling introduction, suggesting portent. Almost immediately the violin spins into life - quirky, angular figures - characteristic Birtwistle zig-zags, lit by sudden explosions in the orchestra - high strings, then low winds, and an underlying pulse which emerges in bursts of ostinato. Five "dialogues" in which the violin discourses with individual instruments. Unlike Greek drama where the chorus comments on proceedings, the orchestra follows the soloist, interacting with the inventiveness in the violin part. Frequent exclamation points - a gong, bell-like marimba like a laugh of recognition, exotic sounds whose meaning may be unclear but significant, nonetheless. Wild outbursts and delicate, wayward passages. The violin sings at the top of its register, tantalizingly beyond and above the orchestra, which responds with groaning blasts. Inventive, richly rewarding and enlivened by Birtwistle's whimsical wit. An excellent companion piece to Elgar's Enigma Variations: the pair should be heard together more often.Simon Rattle's associations with Oliver Knussen and Thomas Adès are even closer. Rattle premiered Adès's Asyla in 1995 in Birmingham and recorded it with the CBSO and later with the Berliner Philharmoniker. Indeed, he included it in his inaugural concert in Berlin in 2002. The title "Asyla" refers to asylums, places of refuge as well as incarceration. It's pertinent, since it's a piece of incessant variations. Inspired by techno music and the idea of repeated mechanical patterns, it channels obsession into energy. Though the famous third movement allegedly depicts swarming hordes bobbing up and down in a crowded nightclub, probably high on drugs, the same could apply to shamanistic dance, where shamans, often high on peyote, dance themselves into oblivion, thereby releasing their subconscious. Asylum as escape and refuge, yet also dangerous. Thus the grand Hollywoodesque climax, an ejaculation in many ways. Asyla can be read as a series of variations, though, unlike Birtwistle and Elgar, these variations are tinged with insanity and desperation. Adès's finest work feeds off this primal energy. Perhaps it needs challenge to keep the sparkplugs firing. Some of his later work isn't as good as Asyla, or The Tempest, or America: a Prophecy, but he's still an important composer. Pointedly, Rattle included Oliver Knussen in his pantheon. Knussen has been a regular at the Barbican, so Rattle could hardly fail to acknowledge his role in promoting new music, in London, in Birmingham and at Aldeburgh. But their relationship is closer than that : Rattle conducted Knussen when Knussen was barely out of his teens. Knussen's Symphony no 3 (1973-79) takes its cue from Shakespeare's Ophelia, distraught with grief, singing "mad songs" in Hamlet. For more background, please read the description on Faber, who are Knussen's publishers. The piece has been in Rattle's repertoire since CBSO days. It's a pity that the only recording of this work was not by Rattle, who reveals Knussen's Symphony in its full glory: (Knussen's conducted it lots, too). It's an amazing work, at turns quirky, magical, demented and inspired. Knussen's Third Symphony is wordless, but its sinuous figures suggest curving, swaying movement, like a dancer turning in circles. Knussen has referred to its "cinematic" nature and "the potential relationship in film between a tough and fluid narrative form and detail which can be frozen or 'blown up' at any point." Without words, Knussen creates drama, in the shifting layers and tempi. Each permutation unfolds like a frenzied dance, or perhaps processional, given the size of these orchestral forces. The orchestra is huge - especially for a piece that lasts 15 minutes, but at its heart lie just three players, a sub unit of celeste, harp and guitar (alternating mandolin). Does that suggest Mahler's Seventh Symphony, and its strange Nachtmusik? Knussen and Mahler don't sound the least bit similar, but the comparison is fruitful, because both symphonies evoke contradictory responses. That's part of their enigmatic power. Knussen's symphony "dances" with grave dignity, strong tutti chords suggesting fractured intensity. Darkness and blinding bright light. Yet at the heart, quiet, simple sounds suggesting the fragile human soul within. A wonderful performance - let's hope Rattle and the LSO do it again, in tribute, for Knussen is very much "more" than a composer, just as Rattle is "more" than a conductor. Knussen's a towering figure in every way, who has done more than most for music in this country. Because his energies have found so many outlets, he hasn't written as much as he might have, but almost everything he does write is top notch, top rank. Among the many composers Knussen has nurtured is Helen Grime. Appropriately, Rattle chose her for the the piece with which the concert began - Fanfare - from a much larger work still in progress. Another excellent choice, linking the past to the future, proof that music in Britain is alive and well and deserves to thrive.
A long queue jamming the Barbican entrance suggested either a security alert or a total sell-out for Sir Simon Rattle’s opening concert with the London Symphony Orchestra. It turned out neither was the case. Despite the biggest media campaign for a music director in London memory, I counted two dozen empty seats and quite a few more given away to BBC freeloaders (why aren’t the BBC made to pay for free seats?). The great and the good of the British arts world turned out for the occasion. The all-English programme was ambitious, daunting even. It looked better on paper than it sounded. Helen Grime’s fanfare commission occupied a landscape somewhere between Birtwistle and Maxwell Davies without asserting personal ownership of the space. Thomas Adès’s showpiece Asyla has wonderfully effective gestures but leaves listeners struggling for a structural thread. The star work was Harrison Birtwistle’s violin concerto, insouciantly tossed off by Christian Tetzlaff who made light of its tremendous physical demands. It featured some breathtaking interplay with, tripping happily to the front one after another, the LSO’s principal flute, piccolo, oboe and bassoon. After the interval, we heard Oliver Knussen’s third symphony, written in his 20s when he was the coming thing and stuck in the indeterminate 1970s. The piece has not worn well. A performance of Elgar’s Enigma Variations, which UK orchestras can play in their sleep, was distinguished by some fine pianissimi in the upper strings and a heart-melting solo from principal cello Rebecca Gilliver, earning her a smacking kiss from the conductor in the first round of applause. The LSO played like the LSO, neither greatly elevated nor accelerated by Rattle’s constant facial exhortations. Rattle remains Rattle, weathered by his Berlin years and rather more comfortable in his skin, but still relying on physical exuberance to reach for that elusive high. First nights are never a good test of love. This relationship needs time to bed in. But to pretend that this concert was epic, auspicious , historic or whatever, as some (but not all) reviewers have rushed to do is to mistake image for substance – which, I came away thinking, was what this concert was all about. Throughout the event, the audience faced two screens that proclaimed ‘This is Rattle’, except when the man himself appeared in short videos, delivering polished soundbites about the music. Not a concert that will linger long in the memory. There will be better nights.
Nina Stemme at the Last Night of the BBC Proms 2017. She was not the only one left open-mouthed by this year's Non-Event LNOP, which was as vision-free as most of the this year's season. Formula works, to some extent. Stemme is is such a megastar that even those who know zilch about music knoiw who she is and that she does Wagner. So nil imagination needed to make her do Brünnhilde while singing Rule Britannia. So no-one really goes to the Last Night for music. But Nina Stemme deserves better ! She's an artist not a cartoon. A few years back, Roderick Williams did it in street clothes. That was infinitely more sincere and moving and more in the spirit of the anthem. Dressing up is all very well, but it needs to be done with genuine flair and humour, the way Juan Diego Florez did last year as Inca Prince and the skit on Paddington Bear as homeless immigrant. (Please read more here). It's not Stemme's fault. It's the marketing philosophy behind the Proms these days that puts commercialism above music. Formula is all very well, and thanks to formula, there were many good Proms this year, scattered around the crass detritus Thanks to good performers who actually like music, not the suits behind formula. How did the Royal Albert Hall get its name ? The vision of a Prince who believed in excellence and learning. Who created the Proms ? A man with vision who loved music and believed that ordinary people could appreciate serious music which wasn't dumbed down. Instead, we're now locked into the "Ten Pieces" mentality, probably the worst case of moronic, musically illiterate goonishness ever. The first year, it was a gimmick but repeated and extended it's become a joke that gone stale. Yet again, formula without vision. Alan Davey claimed "Don't apologise for classical music's complexity. That's its strength". So if he really believes that, why not act on it? For a start, the BBC should scrap the Ten Pieces groupthink and get rid of those behind it. What makes the Last Night of the Proms so much fun is that it's when Prommers party. Party, as in having fun, not party as in Party. As someone interviewed for the broadcast said "We Germans can't do that". They've seen where mass rallies and jingoism can lead. Flag waving wasn't a LNOP tradition til fairly recently, and in principle, there's nothing wrong with it. But there's flag waving because you love your country, and flag waving as a form of passive aggression qnd intimidation. Again, hidden messages. Parry's Jerusalem arranged by Elgar, setting a poem by William Blake whose real meaning has been misappropriated. Read more about that here. What's more, Parry's original version is more questioning than truculent. It might not go down well these days. What also makes the Last Night great is the sense of spontaneity and irreverence. This is why it responds so well to current affairs and social conscience. The Conductor's Speech varies, but the best have been the ones which came from the conductor's heart. That's why conductors need freedom. The job usually falls to the Chief of the BBC SO, the BBC's flagship orchestra, which works so hard all year around. Sakari Oramo's a genial, engaging character, with integrity. No firebrand he. But this year, he was reading a script so banal it sounded like it had been cobbled together by BBC management. All bullet points and mealy mouthed platitudes. Like the bit about women conductors. If the Proms really cared about women, why stick to one token conductor, moulded by Bernstein, whose speeches were self promotion as opposed to the common cause ? Oramo is a good speaker because he's real. Rumour had it that the political powers that be, in whose hands the BBC's fate lies, wanted to control the LNOP speech. And perhaps they did. But if such politicians and those who influence them, (to put it gently) were so secure in their beliefs, why would they feel threatened by Barenboim and Igor Levit ? We don't live in truly democratic times but in a world where those who control the media control minds and use their power to bypass parliamentary process and the very right to dissent. Fact is, most people in the music business, and in the business world in general, have experience dealing with the complexities of the situation. Regular Prommers, the ones who come all season for the music, not just for LNOP, often think on the same lines. So why the fear ? In a democracy, you live with alternatives, you don't suppress them. Nice enough music, though the LNOP isn't really about music. Most memorable apart from Stemme's Liebestod, were Sibelius's Finlandia Hymn in the version made in 1941 witha text relevant to the war between Finland and Russia, and Zoltán Kodály Budavári Te Deum with Christine Rice, Ben Johnson (looking natty in a beard) and John Relyea. Good stuff from the BBC Singers and BBC SO Chorus. Many improvements this year in the physical management of the Proms, like not letting latecomers enter willy nilly, and exceptionally helpful ushers and staff. The people at Door 9 in particular deserve praise, though praise from the public doesn't often get relayed down to the folks on the ground. The presenters are less hyped-up, too, thank goodness, though some of the chat shows were dire.. So many thanks to someone getting things as right as possible., Hopefully those standards of excellence will apply, in future to artistic policy and (dare I say) the Vision Thing.
The BBC has released audience figure for the Proms, showing an 89 percent attendance at the main evening Proms, one percent above last year but still below the 90+% of the previous decade. No figures have been released for lunchtime, late-night and external Proms. Press release below. The 2017 BBC Proms ran from Friday 14 July to Saturday 9 September and featured eight weeks of concerts, talks, workshops, family events and more. Highlights of the 2017 festival included an opening weekend of Elgar with the Staatskapelle Berlin conducted by Daniel Barenboim; the return of the ‘Proms at …’ series, matching music to venues across London and Hull; the first ever Relaxed Prom; Sir András Schiff performing Book 1 of Bach’s ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier’ (he will return in 2018 to perform Book 2); the first complete live performance of Ravi Shankar and Philip Glass’ album ‘Passages’ with Anoushka Shankar conducted by Karen Kamensek; 30 premieres as new music remains at the heart of the festival; and a host of international orchestras, including the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, the Oslo Philharmonic and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Average attendance for the main evening Proms in the Royal Albert Hall this year was 89% and well over half of the concerts in the Royal Albert Hall sold out. The Proms welcomed nearly 60,000 Prommers through the doors of the Royal Albert Hall, purchasing standing tickets which are sold on the day for £6. More than 35,500 tickets were bought by people attending the Proms for the first time and over 10,000 under 18s attended concerts across the season. David Pickard, Director, BBC Proms, says: ‘It’s been a remarkable season of world-class music-making and our outstanding audience figures prove that classical music is in rude health. Our audiences have embraced the huge breadth of music on offer throughout the eight weeks of the festival – from Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under their Chief Conductor Sakari Oramo to a concert celebrating the music of Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie – and show a huge public appetite for classical music, including new and lesser-known works. Thanks to the BBC – who have been running the Proms for 90 years – I’m delighted that we are able to continue Henry Wood’s founding vision of bringing the best quality classical music to the widest possible audiences.’
The last interview given by Sir George Solti before his death, twenty years ago today , was given to the present author at the end of July 1997, in his home on Elsworthy Road, Hampstead, a conductor’s street that once housed Edward Elgar and Henry Wood. Here is the full copyrighted text: SOLTI seemed so relaxed, so beamingly content, that I was almost tempted to believe the old typhoon had eased up. He had, just that morning, packed off to his publisher the third and final draft of an unexpectedly revealing autobiography, and was about to throw an engagement party for his elder daughter, Gabrielle, a London primary school teacher. Solti adored his two daughters, kept their mobile phone numbers taped to his desk so he could reach them at all times. Holding them as newborn babies, he confided, was the closest he ever came to a religious experience. The beam broadened, the serenity turned surreal. Shuffling about his St John’s Wood studio in a woolly cardy and a rollneck and sensitive to English draughts even in midsummer, Solti at 84 could be mistaken for an ousted potentate embracing benign patriarchy. Yet one glance at his piano lid gave the lie to any illusion of repose. The surface was littered with orchestral scores in states of disrepair. Solti did not read music, he tore in and ripped it apart – jabbing, snatching, scribbling, scrabbling for meaning and mastery. His favourite operas shuttled back and forth to the binders. He had been known to stab himself with a baton while conducting. “Nussing,” he sighed in his quaintly Magyarised English, “comes easy to me.” Nothing? I wondered “Almost nussing,” conceded Solti. His memoirs suggest he had no difficulty at all where women were concerned. Many willingly testified to his magnetism, going all hot and cold when he entered a room. He shot me a quizzical look, flirting disclosure. In the public eye, Solti played to perfection the part of Great Conductor – tyrannical and inspirational by turns; bristling with energy, yet preserving emotional aloofness. His very posture repelled intruders. He had been known to throw out an interviewer on the second question. His inner life was protected by a fireproof mask. All of which usefully fuelled a maestro mystique that, with the deaths of Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein at the turn of the Nineties, earned him an awesome solitude. “Solti,” said a senior record producer, “is the last of the giants. When he gives up, we can all go home.” “You know the nicest thing about Georg?” a woman friend had said. “He cannot believe the success he has achieved.” “That’s quite true,” agreed Solti, “although I know how hard I worked for it. Harder than anybody.” He started out in Budapest, the son of an unsuccessful businessman and a strong-willed mother who made sure there was enough money for piano lessons when little György – he became Georg on the German opera circuit – turned out to have perfect pitch. He gave his first piano recital at 12 and was quickly admitted to the Franz Liszt Academy, supplementing the syllabus with six weeks of private lessons from Bela Bartók. At the premiere of his Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, Solti turned pages for the great composer. Had he stuck with the piano, he could have made a decent career. But Solti was determined to conduct, an unattainable dream in Admiral Horthy’s crypto-fascist Hungary. “It was out of the question that a Jew, which I am, should get any sort of state job – and all the orchestras and opera companies were owned by the state,” was Solti’s blunt recollection. Retracing his steps for autobiographical research, Solti had a whole village turn out to welcome him to his father’s birthplace, planting a tree in his honour and aggravating a deep-seated ambivalence. “It was a strange, moving occasion,” he said. “It brought me back to my Hungarian origins – because I strictly refused to have anything to do with them for years. I was chucked out twice, and that was enough.” In October 1932, aged 20, Solti went to Germany to work as an assistant to the conductor Josef Krips in Karlsruhe. Hardly had he found lodgings than a Nazi violinist tipped off the Volkische Beobachter, which launched a poisonous attack on Krips for engaging an “eastern Jew”. Back in Budapest, he scratched around for piano dates and worked as a repetiteur, rehearsing singers at the Opera. The conductor, Joseph Rosenstock, said he had never seen anyone “so talented, or so shy”. Finally, in 1937, he took a letter of introduction to the president of the Salzburg Festival, Baron Puthon, craving permission to observe at rehearsals. As luck would have it, he arrived during a flu epidemic. “Do you know The Magic Flute?” said the Baron. That afternoon, he was playing the rehearsal piano for the cast when Arturo Toscanini, the most fearsome conductor of all time, entered the room. “My heart stopped. I froze. With one finger, he gave me a tiny beat. I followed. After a while he said one word: ‘Bene.’ ” I heard Solti recount this story on his return to Salzburg 52 years later, breaking off a family holiday in Italy to stand in for the dead Karajan, a power-playing ex-Nazi who had placed every possible obstacle in his path. Remarkably, there was neither triumphalism nor bitterness in Solti’s voice, only a sense of wonderment. He next saw Toscanini in Switzerland in the summer of 1939, hoping to accompany him to America. Unable to get a visa, Solti received a cable from his mother telling him to stay put. Hitler had invaded Poland and Hungary was unsafe. During the war, his father died of natural causes; other relatives were murdered in the Holocaust. Trapped in a neutral state, without friends or a work permit, he was taken in by a tenor, Max Hirzel, in exchange for being taught the role of Tristan. In 1942, fearing repatriation, Solti chanced his hand at an international piano competition. “You know how hard it was for me?” he demanded. “I have no visual memory. Unlike Karajan and others who can turn a page and fix it in their minds, I have to learn bar by bar, and tone by tone. “I had what pianists call a finger memory, but, in the excitement of the Geneva competition, I lost it. We were four finalists and I was playing last. I arrived half an hour early and sat at the piano to warm up. I played the fugue from the middle of Beethoven’s opus 110 sonata, a very simple motif, and suddenly I didn’t know where to go. So – panic, sheer terrible panic. “I went out, wanted to go to the office to say I’m not playing, I’m sick. But nobody was there. I came down just as the other pianist finished. The usher said, ‘It’s your turn – go.’ I have no idea how the hell I got through it. I won first prize, but it was terrible. I was a wreck. Since then, I have learned music note by note.” The prize earned him enough money to live on for five months and official permission to teach five pupils “not one more”. Swiss neighbours reported him to the police for practising too loudly – “Why couldn’t they ask me first to be quiet?” he wondered. When the war ended, Solti was 32 and no nearer to his podium ambition. He got in touch with a Hungarian exile, Edward Kilenyi, who was in charge of music in the US occupation zone of Germany, and offered to head the opera in Munich. Rejected on sight, he went to Stuttgart and conducted Beethoven’s Fidelio, signing a contract as music director virtually the next morning. However, hearing that Munich was having second thoughts, he slipped out of town and went for the main chance, abrogating his contract and earning the enmity of the Stuttgart mayor, a future president of the Federal Republic. Most maestros cover up such moral lapses in their august memoirs, but Solti did not mind exposing the indecency of his haste. Having only ever conducted two operas – Figaro in Budapest and the Stuttgart Fidelio – he found himself in charge of a company hallowed by the two Richards, Wagner and Strauss. “It was not for several years that Munich began to discover I was conducting everything for the first time,” he said. He spent six years in Munich – “they chucked me out; the minister wanted a German, non-Jewish conductor” – and nine in Frankfurt, where the administrator eventually said to him: “Solti, you must go now; you are too good for us.” He was almost 50 before he hit the world stage, flying out to the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra – only to fly straight back after a challenge to his artistic authority. He arrived in London in 1961 as music director at Covent Garden. The rest is unalloyed glory. Over the next decade, he raised the Royal Opera House to rank with the world leaders – Vienna, La Scala, Paris and the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Under Solti, London saw big stars and epochal productions – the Callas-Gobbi Tosca, the first Moses und Aron, the most memorable of Arabellas. He taught Britain how to run a top-flight opera house and helped British-trained singers break into Europe. Dames Gwyneth Jones, Margaret Price and Kiri te Kanawa are all shoots from the Solti nursery. In 1969, he took up the baton at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and held sway for a quarter of a century, burnishing a big-band sound that raised a brash ensemble from the Midwest into world contention with Karajan’s all-conquering Berliners. The Chicago-Solti combination sold five million records. In all, Solti made about 300 recordings, including the major symphonic cycles and the first recorded Ring. No living maestro comes close. In America, where titles matter, he was pronounced the World’s Best Conductor. Yet, perhaps due to the frustrations of his delayed start, Solti pushed for more. His podium style, always ungainly, was likened by one US critic to shadow-boxing. In quieter passages, where other conductors put on a dreamy look, he fidgeted and fretted. “Why do you conduct all the time with both hands?” Richard Strauss once asked him. Some of his performances seemed driven to the point of pain. In rehearsal, his rages were apocalyptic. At Covent Garden, they called him “the Screaming Skull”; in Chicago, he was accused of replacing strong-willed players with sycophants. Musicians in the London Philharmonic Orchestra, which he directed from 1979 to 1983, referred to him in a volume of interviews as “poison”, “greedy” and – this from the LPO’s vice-chairman, Nicholas Busch – “the worst conductor ever”. The oldest member of the orchestra looked forward to dancing on his grave. Not one player in the whole book had a good word for him – yet Solti stepped in time and again to save the orchestra’s season when a music director fell sick or a management disintegrated. Everywhere he conducted there are musicians he helped in distress – with a quiet chat, a glowing reference or a personal cheque. He was an absolute pushover for hard-luck cases and refugee causes. When the Chinese opened fire at Tiananmen Square, Solti called off a Chicago tour and donated the proceeds of a London Messiah concert to stranded dissidents. “I became a refugee in August 1939,” he told them. “I know what it is to be cut off from my home.” Close friends found him warm, considerate and charming. Women found him irresistible. We were chatting about one of his Frankfurt friends, the Marxist dialectician Theodor Adorno, when Solti reflected that they shared a love of wine, women and good music – “in reverse order”. “Much the same as you do,” I ventured. “Not wine,” corrected Solti, whose evening tipple was a malt whisky. “But women?” “Always.” He recalled the sweet beginnings. “Until I came to Switzerland, I was very faithful. I had one girlfriend and I wanted to marry that girl. If I didn’t have such an intelligent mother, who said, ‘Just wait another year – you have no money’, who knows what might have been?” The loneliness of exile drove him to seek more varied company. His head was turned in the street by passing blondes, and very often he found them responsive. Later on, at Covent Garden, it was rumoured that Solti gave white mink coats to the singers he slept with. Counter-rumour had it that some singers bought themselves white minks to give an impression of intimacy with the music director. Who knows what to believe? In his memoirs, Solti has preserved a gentlemanly discretion. “I have been as truthful as possible in the book,” he said. “Listen, what’s wrong with liking women? Vat you want – I should be homosexual? It’s the natural way. A musician loves life. I love life in all directions.” But the act of love was never far from his mind. At a recent record industry party, he recalled being lobbied by an American executive who was defending three-minute shellacs against Decca’s long-playing record. Solti heard the man out, then said: “Tell me, what do you prefer – coitus interruptus, or coitus? Myself, I like coitus.” He married for the first time in Switzerland – a girl called Hedi Oechsli who was pregnant with her second child when they met, and left both husband and children for the penniless musician. Solti made no bones about the illicitness of their liaison. Nor did he make much of the fact that her husband was a member of parliament who could have had him expelled. Solti credited Hedi with getting him to read books and polishing his table manners. In London, she did much to smooth his path with the Covent Garden toffery. He met his second wife, Valerie Pitts, when she went to interview him one Friday night at the Savoy for BBC Television, and stayed. She was married and, at 27, barely half his age. “It was a violent affair,” he once said. Valerie opened his eyes to the visual arts and gave him a family, for which he would sacrifice anything – racing out of Chicago concerts to reach London in time for his little girl’s birthday. He lay awake worrying what could be done to bring young people back to classical music. He planned to collar Tony Blair and urge him to increase Covent Garden’s subsidy in exchange for cheaper seats. “Otherwise, better to close it down than to carry on muddling,” he believed. He made repeated attempts to push through a merger between two London orchestras and create a world-class ensemble. “It is a great sadness that we can’t play a better operatic or symphonic standard here,” he lamented. “The musicians deserve better and the public deserve better.” Latterly, I would watch him stand back in the podium and allow himself to enjoy the music. “He is extremely demanding and egotistical,” said a close associate before Solti’s death, “but, at heart, he is a very humble person.” In Chicago, he prayed for his successor, Daniel Barenboim, to do well, “because then I can be forgotten”. Asked how he would like to be remembered, Solti shrugged and seemed, for the first time in my experience, lost for words. As I moved towards the door, he made a parting request. “Would you kindly,” said Solti, “not bring out so much my love of ladies?” He shot me another of those male-to-male looks. “Anyway,” he added, quite unconvincingly, “I am an old man now.” (c) Norman Lebrecht, 1997
Sir Edward William Elgar (2 June 1857 23 February 1934) was an English composer, many of whose works have entered the British and international classical concert repertoire. Among his best-known compositions are orchestral works including the Enigma Variations, the Pomp and Circumstance Marches, concertos for violin and cello, and two symphonies. He also composed choral works, including The Dream of Gerontius, chamber music and songs. Although Elgar is often regarded as a typically English composer, most of his musical influences were not from England but from continental Europe. He felt himself to be an outsider, not only musically, but socially. In musical circles dominated by academics, he was a self-taught composer; in Protestant Britain, his Roman Catholicism was regarded with suspicion in some quarters; and in the class-conscious society of Victorian and Edwardian Britain, he was acutely sensitive about his humble origins even after he achieved recognition. After a series of moderately successful works his Enigma Variations (1899) became immediately popular in Britain and overseas. His later full-length religious choral works were well received but have not entered the regular repertory. The first of his Pomp and Circumstance Marches (1901) is well-known in the UK and in the US. Elgar has been described as the first composer to take the gramophone seriously. Between 1914 and 1925, he conducted a series of recordings of his works. The introduction of the microphone in 1925 made far more accurate sound reproduction possible, and Elgar made new recordings of most of his major orchestral.
Great composers of classical music