A Gentler Georg Solti. Chicago Symphony conductor still pouring out new discs. RECORDINGS: REVIEW

THE past year and a half has been a landmark period for Sir Georg Solti. Last season there were the Chicago festivities surrounding his 70th birthday - including a gala Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert (part of which was eventually seen on PBS) and the unveiling of a bust in a prominent Chicago park. This year, as part of the celebrations marking 20 years as the Chicago's music director, the orchestra has just ended a brief East Coast tour, just prior to which Solti officially announced his move up to music director emeritus effective in 1991, when Daniel Barenboim succeeds him as music director.

Most important for his fans, the recordings (and CD reissues) continue unabated. Solti's recorded performances of both operas and symphonies all attest to his progression from a volatile, rather hard-driven interpreter into a mellowed, wiser, more contemplative one. This is not to say that the newer releases are devoid of drive, but, rather, today Solti is able to temper his energies with something gentler, more soulful.

This is most obvious in his new performances of Beethoven's Fifth and Fourth symphonies (LONDON, digital, 421-580-2, 1 CD, 72 mins.) Where the Fifth once drove mercilessly to the finish line, now we are made aware of events along the way. And where the Fourth was once brittle in its vivaciousness, Solti now finds a softer, more deeply felt merriment.

Sir Georg's new account of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony (LONDON, digital, 417 800-2, 1 CD, 75 mins.) is thoroughly engrossing - a major statement by a maestro who has been clearly and actively contemplating this work for the bulk of his professional career. Jessye Norman and Hans Sotin are the particular assets of the solo quartet, though Robert Schunk and Reinhild Runkel hold their own commendably. And Margaret Hillis's Chicago Symphony Chorus is superb, as usual, and in both releases the Chicago Symphony is in peak form.

I wish I could be more enthusiastic about Solti's reading of Bruckner's Ninth. Some Bruckner symphonies can take this harsh, unrelenting approach more readily than the Ninth, and the sound on this release (LONDON, digital, 417 295-2, 1 CD, 61 mins.) is unnecessarily brash and unpleasant. Nevertheless, his 20 years with this orchestra have restored and sustained its luster, and it remains one of the three or four greatest ensembles in the world today. Their greatest achievement is the complete cycle of Mahler symphonies, now all handsomely transfered to CD.

Solti the pianist is a musician we have heard from rarely in his post-war career, so his account, with the Melos Quartet, of Mozart piano quartets (No. 1 in G minor, K 478; No. 2 in E-flat major, K. 493) is welcome, especially given the quality of the performances (LONDON, digital, 417 109-2, 1 CD, 47 mins.). Solti's viewpoint incorporates elements of soloist, conductor, and chamber musician, and one only regrets that his visits to the studio in this capacity are so infrequent.

Sir Georg used to be music director of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and he is still very active with them in the recording studio. A recent release featuring Haydn's 93rd and 99th symphonies (LONDON, digital, 417 620-2, 1 CD, 53 mins.) is a delight on all counts - beautifully played, buoyantly interpreted, giving the music breadth and spirit.

These are very much the qualities he elicits from the London Philharmonic on his magnificent performance of Mozart's ``Le Nozze di Figaro,'' which has been around for nearly six years, but which I only got around to hearing a few months ago. It is in all ways a satisfying, enjoyable ``Nozze'' (LONDON, digital, 410 151-2, 3 CDs, 2 hrs., 48 mins.)

Some may find Solti's tempos rather too fleet, but I found them bracing and stylish, and they always seem to flatter the singer at hand. The set is in all ways dominated by the Figaro of bass Samuel Ramey. The Countess always has been Kiri Te Kanawa's best role, as she proves here. Lucia Popp is ideally cast as Susanna, and there is no better Cherubino today than Frederica von Stade. Kurt Moll is the Bartolo, and Jane Berbi'e a richly characterized Marcellina.

SOLTI'S most recent operatic effort is Wagner's ``Lohengrin,'' with Pl'acido Domingo in the title role (LONDON, digital, 421 053-2, 4-CDs, 3 hrs., 43 mins.). For a field with no clearcut ``best performance,'' this set has much to recommend it. Domingo is a luxuriously voiced Lohengrin. Jessye Norman, while essentially miscast as Elsa, manages to bring many aspects of the heroine vividly to life. Eva Randova makes a solid Ortrud, Siegmund Nimsgern a rough but creditable Telramund, Hans Sotin a stalwart King Henry, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau a gruff, vocally miscast Herald. Solti elicits superb playing from the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, the orchestra with which he has recorded most of his Wagner and Strauss operas.

Speaking of Strauss operas, Solti, Strauss, and the Vienna Philharmonic were an unstoppable team in the first glory years of the stereo age, particularly with ``Elektra,'' ``Salome,'' and ``Der Rosenkavalier.'' They have all been reprocessed to CD. ``Elektra'' (LONDON, analog, 417 345-2, 2 CDs, 1 hr., 38 mins.) remains a staggering aural experience, particularly because the remastering allows all the rich facets of Solti's explosive performance to be felt with full impact. Birgit Nilsson is extraordinary in the title role, Regina Resnik is a grimly flavorful Klyt"amnestra, Gerhard Stolze a manic Aegisth, Tom Krause a solid Orest.

I had never much liked the ``Salome'' but on hearing this remastered CD set, I cannot imagine why (LONDON, analog, 414 414-2, 2-CDs, 1hr. 40 mins.). Solti takes a luridly expressionistic approach to the score which frames Nilsson's aggressive but glorious Salome and Stolze's manic-neurotic Herod thrillingly. It is the sort of performance that grabs you and holds you to the final orchestral crunch.

Conversely, listening to the CD transfer of the ``Rosenkavalier'' made me wonder what it was about the set I used to find so magical (LONDON, analog, 417 493-2, 3 CDs, 3 hrs. 20 mins.). The CD transfer sounds wonderful, but it somehow accentuates an iciness in Solti's way with the score, and the vocal flaws in both R'egine Crespin's vulnerable and womanly Marschallin and Yvonne Minton's impetuous Octavian. This leaves Manfred Junwirth's drolly bumptious Ochs and Helen Donath's radiantly fresh Sophie as definite assets, as well as a theatrically engrossing studio production - a sense of a staging happening in your living room.

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