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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

The joy of Solti's last concert

By Norman Lebrecht / August 30, 2007

What shall I tell Tony Blair?' he demanded. We were sitting, ten years ago this week, in Solti's garden-level studio on the last morning of his life in England and he was, as always, bristling with plans and interventions. He was worried about the philistinism of the new Labour government, its preference for ephemeral art over substance, and he meant to have his say. The prime minister would not refuse to see Sir Georg Solti. He had been promised face time as soon as he got back from holiday.

Sadly, Solti fell ill in Antibes and died in hospital, aged 84, news of his death obscured and diminished by the concurrent Diana frenzy. His ashes were flown to Hungary and buried there beside his teacher, Bartok.

An era was over, little did we know. No maestro today, apart from Daniel Barenboim, has Solti's moral authority or his access to power. And none has his refugee-driven restlessness every day, in some way or other, to improve the human condition.

He made Covent Garden world class and Chicago an international orchestra (before Solti it had never been abroad). His statue stands in a Chicago park though not, yet, in a London square. He conducted 300 recordings, launched dozens of careers and, at the time he died, was paying for scores of kids all over the world to go to college at his expense. No homeless person was ever turned away from his Hampstead door. He never forgot his wartime poverty in Switzerland, while his family were being oppressed and massacred back home.

To mark his anniversary, Decca are releasing the last concert of his life, a Zurich performance of Mahler's fifth symphony with the Tonhalle orchestra. It's a gently affectionate account of a trademark work, so gentle that the opening movement is almost unrecognisable for its lack of devilment, its refusal to push players and music to the limits. The Adagietto, though not slow, is warmly mellow. We have to wait for the finale to hear the real Solti, mischievously forsaking headlong speed for little touches of sheer fun, his joy in music irresistibly infectious and undimmed to the last. Tony Blair missed out on a treat.

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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]


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