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Georg Solti in rehearsal and performance
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Overture Tannhäuser [rehearsal – 42:00, performance 17:00]
Südfunk-Sinfonieorchester/Georg Solti
rec. 1966
Format NTSC 4:3; PCM Stereo
Rehearsal in German with subtitles in German, English and French
Region Code 0
EUROARTS 2053038 DVD [59:00]

If your impression of Solti’s conducting is of jerky, even hyperactive, elbow movements and the “screaming skull”, the rehearsal and performance here offer a partial antidote. As any conductor must do, he spends much of the rehearsal – a surprisingly large part of which is taken up with the initial Andante maestoso section – on basic matters of balance, phrasing and rhythm. He concentrates on exactitude in following the directions of the score, and in the process he draws attention to much detail which can easily be missed. For instance, the initial entry of the cellos is marked piano with a crescendo after four complete bars. When the violins take the melody up a few bars later their crescendo starts after only two complete bars, intensifying the character of the music. Solti carefully ensures that this difference is observed. Later, after Letter A, the unison violins have a series of triplet semiquavers, the last of each group being silent. He ensures that there really is a silence at the end of the triplet and that the two initial notes are played exactly in time. What can sound simply wild is made more exciting by being more disciplined.

The orchestra are polite but appear bored – as well they might be working on a piece they probably know backwards. Solti is similarly polite at all times but, as he explains, determined that the music should be played in the way he that he intends. He points out the way in which the various motifs of the Overture are derived from passages in the opera, and frequently emphasises the importance of legato and of a singing tone. The point of this work becomes apparent in the performance, in an unidentified concert hall, which makes much of music which, to me at least, had become hackneyed but which sprang to life again.

The filming in black and white is straightforward if at times a little fuzzy, and the sound adequate for its period. Watching and listening, preferably with the aid of a score, is both enlightening and entertaining, and leaves one with increased respect for Solti’s musicianship. There is little drama or playing to the camera here but it is always good to see how solid detailed work can transform a performance.
John Sheppard