Georg Solti: Charisma and Vitality
see end of review for details 
rec. various venues, 1947-1958
DOCUMENTS 233588 [10 CDs: 475:41]
The idea of a Solti memorial set comprising his early recordings is worthy, but this is an odd collection. Ten discs has become the "magic number", a standard for this sort of low-priced, minimally-documented anthology. The Solti discographies suggest that the conductor certainly left ten discs' worth of monaural recordings, but some were perhaps unavailable or considered unsatisfactory. So the producers have padded the programme out with monaural mixes of stereo recordings - three full discs' worth.
A curiosity is that some of the performances make an unexpectedly different effect in these monaural mix-downs. Gaité Parisienne sounds less aggressive and self-conscious than in the over-bright stereo of the Decca Eloquence issue (476 2724), making it easier to like. On the other hand, the greyed sonorities mute the brilliance of the Faust ballet music, one of the best versions available in its stereo guise.
At first, I thought the Suppé overtures were mislabeled - Solti recorded several in mono, with the London Philharmonic. However the performances do correspond reasonably to my notes on the Vienna remakes - which I heard in the Speakers Corner "super-LP" reissue of SXL 2174 - including the boomy, opaque recording quality in the tuttis. In this altered sonic frame, Morning, Noon and Night in Vienna now sounds driven, while Light Cavalry, which I previously found breathless, now has a triumphant "here comes the cavalry" verve.
The Barcarolle, from the LP programme "Solti at the Opera", is tacked onto the end of the all-Offenbach disc, and feels like a musical hiccup: we've just heard it, as the last dance in Gaité Parisienne. Even so, the disc, like many of the others in the set, is short measure. The lively, spanking accounts of the two Rossini overtures and the Dance of the Hours, from the same album,are catchy - the only thing missing is stereo.
Solti's way with the Schubert symphony is musical, but favours Classical severity rather than Viennese geniality. Even the cantabile of the Andante con moto sounds reined-in. A similar rigour, on the other hand, proves apt in the outer movements of Tchaikovsky's Serenade, while the melodies of the inner movements blossom nicely.
It's the "legit" mono recordings that prove the most informative, if not always the best. Decca briefly revived the Brahms sonatas on LP in the wake of Solti's Chicago stardom. The performances, capturing the music's impassioned surge while respecting its Classical framework, are gripping. Georg Kulenkampff's tone is full-bodied, even in the highest ranges, and his phrasing is aristocratic. Solti, in a rare recorded appearance as pianist, has a well-balanced tone and takes care over the voicing of chordal passages, though the "ping" becomes aggressive above the stave.
The Bartók disc, too, is fine, although the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta - a score that the conductor seems not to have redone for stereo - doesn't immediately hit stride. In the searching opening movement, it's Solti and the players who sound like they're searching - for some sense of shape and direction, though the textures are clear enough. From the second movement onwards, however, the conductor's familiar taut energy and drive draw a performance both lively and atmospheric. The Dance Suite is full of life and trenchant colour, though it reminded me of Kodály - a relationship that usually works the other way around.
Over the years, some commentators, including Decca producer John Culshaw, questioned Solti's temperamental affinity with and aptitude for Beethoven. The two concertos offered here, with their clean lines and uncluttered textures, seem particularly suited to the conductor's forthright, tensile manner. Both soloists fit well into his framework - or, perhaps, vice versa - although the usually austere Backhaus imposes unneeded tempo shifts and agogics on the Emperor's Finale, presumably to make structural points. Elman projects the lyrical lines of the Violin Concerto with taste and tact.
The Mahler First was still a comparative rarity in 1957, and this nervous performance - from a concert, to judge by a few coughs - is unrecognizable as the Solti speciality of later years. The first movement feels hasty, taking in bits of smudged ensemble and a few slapdash accelerations. The inner two movements suffer some herky-jerky tempo changes that the conductor would smooth out later on. The Finale isn't exactly neat - and the ending oddly hangs fire - but Solti's energy maintains interest.
The 1958 Verdi Requiem, too, represents a sketch for the conductor's later productions, recorded by Decca and RCA. As in those later accounts, Solti plays for maximum atmosphere, with springy rhythms: the Sanctus fugue is catchy, though rough around the edges. Some of the contrasts, as at "Te decet hymnus" in the opening movement, seem unduly punched-up. The chorus is competent if a bit woolly. Oralia Dominguez sings with firm authority; so does Nicola Zaccaria, though he turns lachrymose in the Confutatis maledictis. Gré Brouwenstijn soars, inconsistently; Giuseppe Zampieri is ringy, but provincial in style. Intonation in the unaccompanied ensembles of the Lacrimosa and the Lux aeterna goes badly off the rails.
What to do, then? All but enthusiasts will ultimately find the Mahler and the Verdi mere curiosities, and many of the "fake" monaural performances can be had in authentic stereo elsewhere. Whether it's worth buying the box just to get the Beethoven, Bartók and Brahms performances is up to you.
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.
All but enthusiasts will ultimately find the Mahler and the Verdi mere curiosities while the Beethoven, Bartók and Brahms performances are much more. 

Masterwork Index: Beethoven piano concerto 5 ~~ Beethoven violin concerto ~~ Mahler symphony 1 ~~ Verdi requiem

CD 1 [72:47]
Franz VON SUPPÉ (1819-1895)
Pique Dame: Overture (1864) [7:04]*
Leichte Kavallerie: Overture (1866) [5:49]*
Dichter und Bauer: Overture (1846) [8:59]*
Ein Morgen, ein Mittag, ein Abend in Wien: Overture (1844) [7:35]*
Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)
Faust: Ballet Music (1859) [15:44]+
Gioacchino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Semiramide: Sinfonia (1823) [11:23]+
L'Italiana in Algeri: Sinfonia (1813) [7:23]+
Amilcare PONCHIELLI (1834-1886)
La Gioconda: Danza delle ore (1876) [8:42]+
CD 2 [41:46]
Jacques OFFENBACH (1819-1880)
Gaité Parisienne (arr. Manuel Rosenthal, 1938) [37:43]+
Les contes d'Hoffmann: Barcarolle (1880) [4:03]+
CD 3 [38:28]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat, Op. 73 (Emperor) (1809-10) [38:28]^
CD 4 [46:37]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Violin Concerto in D, Op. 61 (1806) [46:37]#
CD 5 [45:07]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Violin Sonata in G, Op. 78 (1878-9) [25:55]°
Violin Sonata in A, Op. 100 (1886) [19:11]°
CD 6 [51:32]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony No. 5 in B flat, D. 485 (1816) [24:09]§
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Serenade for String Orchestra in C, Op. 48 (1880) [27:22]§
CD 7 [47:43]
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 1 in D (Titan) (1887/96) [47:43]¶
CD 8 [43:35]
Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936) [27:46]#
Dance Suite (1923) [15:48]#
CDs 9-10 [48:28 + 39:38]
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Messa da Requiem (1874) [88:06]²
^Wilhelm Backhaus (piano)
#Mischa Elman (violin)
°Georg Kulenkampff (violin)
²Gré Brouwenstijn (soprano)
²Oralia Dominguez (mezzo)
²Giuseppe Zampieri (tenor)
²Nicola Zaccaria (bass)
²Cologne Radio Chorus
*Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
+Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
^¶²Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra
#London Philharmonic Orchestra
§Israel Philharmonic Orchestra
Georg Solti, conductor, °piano

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