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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 3, No. 8

Books / Livres

June 1, 1998

The late Sir Georg Solti's autobiographical memoirs were completed within days of his death in September 1997, just short of his 85th birthday. These excellent reminiscences (ghost-written by Harvey Sachs, author of good biographies of Toscanini and Rubenstein) are a fascinating final legacy to Solti's many fans and to anyone curious about the modern history of classical music.

Georg Solti was born György Stern to a Jewish family on Oct. 21, 1912 in Buda, Hungary. His father Germanized young György's given name to Georg and changed his family name to Solti, to shield his son from anti-semitism. World War I impoverished the Stern family, and the young Solti apprenticed as a pianist and repetiteur in Hungarian opera houses, though as a Jew he was forbidden to conduct. In 1939 the rise of Nazism drove him to Switzerland where he survived by coaching singers. His father died a natural death during the war; his mother was driven slightly mad by years of hiding from the Nazis in a cellar. By 1945 Germany was in Allied hands and Solti took over the music direction of the Bavarian State Opera. Solti gives a more honest explanation for his return to Germany than any excuse given by Karajan or Furtwängler for their pro-Nazi activities: "The desire to conduct was an irresistible force in me ... Sometimes, I think, like Faust, I would have been prepared to make a pact with the Devil and go to hell with him in order to conduct." Solti was a relatively inexperienced conductor but he learned quickly and made valuable contacts before de-Nazified German conductors returned to their posts. The rest of Solti's career follows a gentle rise with pauses at the Frankfurt Opera, the Vienna Philharmonic (where he recorded his wonderful Ring Cycle), the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and the Chicago Symphony.

Solti's memoirs are precious not just because he was at the centre of European and North American musical life for over half a century, but also because he was always aware of the historical context and trajectory of his activities. He regularly steps back from the narrative to clarify, judge and, occasionally, confess. In countless asides, without getting technical or mystical, he illuminates the craft of conducting. His digressions on music, art and psychology are fresh and valuable, the fruit of lived experience. Solti also has a sharp sense of humour, supplying many funny and irreverent celebrity anecdotes. It has been many years since a musician wrote such an interesting and entertaining book.

Matthew Boyden : The Rough Guide to Opera
672 pp. $34.99. (ISBN 1-85828-138-5)

Had there been a book like this when I was a teenager, I would have been turned on to opera much sooner. The Rough Guide to Opera is divided into eight chronological chapters, covering 132 composers. Each chapter introduces a musical style or period in intelligent but accessible terms. Each composer is likewise described and contextualized. Each composer's major works are described, including dates of composition and premiere, librettist's name and a plot synopsis. All this leads up to the "buyer's guide" CD descriptions. The CD listings are far from exhaustive (only 3 Toscas and 2 Normas out of the dozens available!), but they are reliable and include the best commercial recordings. The CD advice generally echoes the Penguin and Gramophone Guides, but stops around 1996 (so, for example, the two new French versions of Cherubini's Medée are not mentioned).

Many minor composers are included, and the Rough Guide has a very welcome modern opera section full of information not easily found elsewhere. The appendices include thumbnail biographies of singers and conductors (more singers' discographies would be helpful), a directory of opera houses (but not enough web site addresses) and a glossary of operatic terms (a compact disc demonstrating these terms would be a valuable addition).

The Guide's no-nonsense style is neither technical nor vulgar (and it is much better than the pathetic "Opera for Dummies"). If you can't tell Battle from Baker or Manon Lescaut from Manon, this is the best single book on the market to bring you up to speed. P.A.

(c) La Scena Musicale