Georg Solti: the making of a musical colossus

Written By The Wagnerian on Tuesday, 18 September 2012 | 12:48:00 am

An article from the Guardian wherein Ed Vulliamy dicusses, in some detail, Solti's career and talks to Lady Valerie Solti

In February 1965 the Hungarian director of the Royal Opera House – emerging as incontestably the greatest conductor of his generation – flew to Tel Aviv to lead a series of performances by the Israel Philharmonic. Georg Solti had for a while been much enamoured by young television reporter Valerie Pitts, who had interviewed him in the Savoy hotel a few months previously, in September 1964, and he had pressed her to join him on the road. Early in March 1965 she duly arrived in the Middle East and Solti was asked by the singer Ken McDonald how long the comely blond visitor was planning to stay. "For the rest of her life," replied the maestro.

Pitts had been working as an interviewer and announcer for the BBC, with her own programme covering cultural events in the week ahead. "I wrote and researched the programme during the previous week, ready for transmission on a Monday evening," recalls Lady Solti today. "At the end of August there was a last-minute change of plan. The clip of the new film I was going to talk about was held up in customs. I was in a total panic. It was Friday afternoon and I had to find an item. So I thought: the Royal Opera House – maybe they've got a ballet or an opera – and Sheila Porter in the Opera House press office said, 'Well, there's always Solti. He's doing a new Ring.' She rang back a few minutes later, saying: 'He'll do it. Make yourself pretty and be there at 11, at the Savoy.' That was all very well but where on a Friday at 5.30 was I going to find a film crew for the next day?

"A minor miracle happened – the BBC could send a crew, providing I could finish in time for them to be at Arsenal football ground for the kick-off. So off I went to interview Solti, without knowing quite what I was going to talk to him about. I knew nothing of the Ring, except that it was very long, in German and by Richard Wagner."

"When I arrived at the Savoy the film crew were becoming agitated as there was no sign of him. The receptionist told me that Dr Solti was in his room. I went up in a lift which was transformed into a red lacquer temple, found the room, knocked on the door and a guttural voice said: 'What do you want?' I said I was from the BBC, and suddenly the door flew open and there he was, wrapped up in steaming towels. 'My dear, I'm so sorry,' he said. 'I forgot. Do you think you could find my socks?'

"So I was looking for his socks under the bed and suddenly the door flew open and there was the head of the opera house press office, saying: 'Valerie, what are you doing there?' – with me, bottom in the air, searching for Solti's socks."


The young reporter admitted to the maestro: "I'm not awfully good on opera. Truthfully, I don't like it much because I saw a frightful production in Frankfurt – Elektra, I think. It was horrid."

There followed a terrible pause, then Solti's brown eyes twinkled. "My dear, what year was that?" he asked. Then he laughed: "Thank you very much. I was conducting."

"And that's how it all began," says Lady Solti. "I was bewitched – captivated – by this man, and logic and pragmatism just flew out of the window. It was a coup de foudre. After months of turmoil I went to Israel. I arrived to a hotel room which he had filled with vases of carnations and antirrhinums. A few days later he dictated my letter of resignation to the BBC!"

We are speaking in Solti's London studio which is rather like a museum, now frequently used by young musicians as a place where they can study and rehearse. The place is vibrant with creativity. On Solti's old desk is a fragment of the living past – a score of Bach's St John Passion, on which Solti was working when he died, covered with his hallmark annotations in lead pencil and red crayon – his two strata of excavation and analysis of the composer's intent.