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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Energetic Solti Left 50-Year Legacy of Work, Recordings

LONDON -- Sir Georg Solti, one of the world's musical maestros, who died Friday at the age of 84, was perhaps the most energetic and driven conductor of the 20th century.


His work at London's Covent Garden Opera House and with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra are matched by nearly half a century of recording.


With an unprecedented 31 Grammy Awards, the music industry's equivalent of Oscars, the Hungarian-born conductor is classical music's most successful recording star.


Executive assistant Charles Kaye said Solti died while on holiday in Antibes in the south of France.


Since Solti, who took up British nationality in 1972, completed an acclaimed version of Richard Wagner's operatic "Ring" cycle with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1966, he has been famous as a leading interpreter of the composer.


Time called him "The Fastest Baton in the West," and he was known by the London Symphony Orchestra as "the screaming skull" because of his bald, domed head and his irascible nature.


"I am not shouting any more," Solti said recently. "I am a softie now and I think my conducting has mellowed, too.


Writer Norman Lebrecht, author of "The Maestro Myth," tried to explain Solti. "What propels him, even today, is a sense of duty and gratitude towards the art that saved his life in wartime and the eternal insecurity of the refugee," he said.


Solti remained astonishingly fit -- short and stocky with a tanned complexion and hazel eyes -- and thrived on his adrenaline-charged lifestyle.


He had made it known in music circles he was taking bookings until the end of the century.


In the 1994-1995 season, Solti worked with the Vienna Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra and the Israel Philharmonic in addition to making guest appearances in other projects.


Solti spent most of the year in Europe. His principal home was a Victorian mansion in London, where he lived with his second wife, Valerie, and two daughters.


His 22-year stint as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, in addition to playing the stock market, made him a rich man. He also had romantic rambling homes in Switzerland and Italy. He traveled by private jet and was a keen cyclist and water-skier until late in life.


Born in Budapest on Oct. 21, 1912, to middle-class Jewish parents, Solti was a prodigy at the piano.


He gave his first public concert in 1924 and the following year he entered the Liszt Academy to study under Hungarian composers Zoltan Kodaly and Bela Bartok, whom he revered.


At the age of 17, Solti fulfilled his real ambition by securing a position as conductor with the Budapest Opera. But his debut with Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro" was upstaged by the Nazi invasion of Austria the same night.


In 1939 he fled to Switzerland where, unable to conduct, he returned to the keyboard, winning the 1942 Geneva International Piano competition. "I still have friends in Switzerland who think I make a better pianist," he said.


But Solti, whose family was wiped out in the Holocaust, was determined to conduct, particularly after having played for Toscanini at the Salzburg Festival in 1937.


Solti's Jewish background helped after the war when U.S. occupation authorities were keen to engage anti-Nazis to rebuild German opera houses.


In 1946, he had his first big break when the American military government invited him to conduct Beethoven's "Fidelio" in Munich.


This was so successful he was appointed music director at the Bavarian State Opera, restoring it as one of Germany's leading cultural centers.


In 1961 he accepted the post of artistic director at London's Royal Opera. "I have only one desire," he said. "To make Covent Garden the best opera house in the world."


Solti, forged in the tradition of conductor as autocrat, encountered resistance from musicians and singers and early productions had mixed reviews.


"I wanted discipline, precision," said Solti. "I was a Generalmusikdirector, a martinet. I didn't understand the great British quality of tolerance and I didn't understand the word 'no.' And they called me 'Prussian' -- me, a Hungarian Jew."