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Wolfgang Sawallisch was a genuine maestro, gifted with an outstanding technique, and also a fine lieder accompanist. He leaves behind an impressive legacy of recordings, many of them for EMI.
It is as a conductor of the works of Wagner and Richard Strauss that he will be best remembered but he was also a noted interpreter of the classical and romantic repertoire. He was a gifted opera conductor, especially at Bayreuth in the 1950s and 60s and at La Scala. His lengthy tenure at the Staatsoper in Munich is regarded as a golden age. As a pianist, his regular lieder partners included Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Lucia Popp, Brigitte Fassbaender and Margaret Price. A modest man, both on the podium and in private life, Sawallisch had a singularly professorial manner. His interpretations were always informed and never indulgent – and unlike his rival, Karajan, he was refreshingly disinterested in fame and the media machine.
Wolfgang Sawallisch was born in Munich in 1923 and began piano lessons at the age of 5. An epiphany during a performance of Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel, however, convinced him to become a conductor instead. He was drafted into the army in 1942, but a lucky temporary commandeering to give civillian concerts meant that he narrowly missed being shipped off to the Battle of Stalingrad. After the war he worked as a repetiteur, only making his conducting debut in Hänsel und Gretel in 1950. In 1953, however, Sawallisch became, at 30, the youngest conductor to appear with the Berliner Philharmonic.
Spotted by the legendary EMI record producer Walter Legge, Sawallisch made a number of pioneering recordings with the Philharmonia in London – Richard Strauss’ horn concertos with Dennis Brain and the now legendary recording of Capriccio with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as the Countess alongside Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Nicolai Gedda. In 1957 Wieland Wagner invited him to conduct Tristan und Isolde at Bayreuth – again, Sawallisch was the youngest conductor to appear at the Festspielhaus. Sadly the two fell out in 1963, putting paid to a notable artistic partnership.
In 1963 he became principal conductor with both the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and the Hamburg Philharmonic but his most important appointment, creatively, was becoming music director of the Bavarian State Opera in 1970, remaining there until 1992. Sawallisch’s Munich period which saw him conduct all the major operas of Wagner and Strauss (except Salome) and was notable for consistently high artistic standards.
In 1993 he became music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra where he confounded his critics, who feared conservative, Germanic programming, by commissioning new works from American composers and conducting tribute concerts to Jewish composers killed in the Holocaust. On one notable occasion in 1994 Sawallisch was due to conduct a Wagner concert when a sudden snowstorm meant that most of the orchestra were unable to make it to the hall. Rather than cancel, Sawallisch chose instead to accompany the singers at the piano – a generous artistic gesture, typical of this self-effacing musician.
Ill health in his mid-seventies led Sawallisch to retire in 2006 to the Bavarian Alps, where he had founded a music school, the Wolfgang Sawallisch Stiftung in Grassau.
Wolfgang Sawallisch, was born on August 26, 1923. He died on February 22, 2013, aged 89