Obituary: Wolfgang Sawallisch, conductor

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Born: 26 August, 1923, in Munich. Died: 22 February, 2013, in Grassau, Germany, aged 89.

Wolfgang Sawallisch was a prominent conductor in the very best traditions of the German school: graduating through academies and then serving in various junior positions with orchestras and opera houses. Sawallisch established a deserved reputation for his conducting of romantic German music and made famous recording of the music of Brahms, Schumann and Richard Strauss. He was a renowned conductor in the concert hall and gained legendary status for his conducting of Wagner (especially at Bayreuth), but he never lost his love the piano. He often accompanied some of the leading Lieder singers (Dieter Fischer-Dieskau, Hermann Prey) and especially the soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopt, who wrote of working with him: “He never made a star of himself. He wanted to make music untrammelled.” She added: “It’s a wonderful sensation. It’s as if you’re in private.”

Sawallisch studied in Munich but his training was interrupted by the Second World War, during which he was called up to serve as a radio operator in the army stationed in Italy. He was captured and imprisoned. After the war he worked at the opera house in Augsburg and was soon conducting performances.

By 1960 he had been engaged to conduct at Cologne but that decade of learning the repertoire and coaching singers and musicians was to prove invaluable.

For a conductor who enjoyed an international career his appearances at three Edinburgh Festivals marked all too rare appearances in the UK. Indeed, he came to the Scottish capital with three of the great orchestras of the world supporting legendary maestros. In 1955 he shared the podium with Eugene Ormandy and Paul Hindemith conducting the Vienna Philharmonic.

Three years later Sawallisch conducted the Philharmonia Orchestra in works by Schumann and Berlioz. The other conductors on that visit were two giants of the musical world: Otto Klemperer and Ernest Ansermet. In 1960 he was back with that orchestra and shared the conducting with Carlo Maria Giulini.

In the 1950s Sawallisch was much sought after in Europe and was one of the youngest conductors to be engaged at the Bayreuth Festival and with the Berlin Philharmonic. Despite being a regular at various German opera houses Sawallisch decided to turn down invitations from the Vienna State Opera and the Metropolitan Opera in New York, thus upsetting two of the major operatic figures of the day: Herbert von Karajan and Rudolf Bing. The latter had gone to New York after being the founding artistic director of the Edinburgh Festival and was attracting a roster of leading conductors.

Instead, Sawallisch concentrated on building his career with the major orchestras in Europe. He was principal conductor of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra (1960-70) and music director of the Hamburg Philharmonic (1961-73). He also appeared regularly with the Suisse Romande in Geneva, the Orchestre de Paris and the Israel Philharmonic.

In 1957 Sawallisch was invited to conduct Tristan und Isolde at Bayreuth in a memorable production by Wieland Wagner. Sawallisch was to conduct at Bayreuth until 1963 when he and Wagner had a major falling out.

Such was his reputation in the opera house he was appointed music director at the prestigious Bavarian State Opera in Munich. From 1971 to 1990 Sawallisch conducted the German repertoire including critically acclaimed performances of Wagner and Richard Strauss works.

Sawallisch is more widely known to the music world today for his many definitive recordings. His account from the early 1960s of the Wagner Ring Cycle with his orchestra from Munich and a first class cast (Rene Kollo, Hildegard Behrens, Julia Varady) is still highly rated. He made an acclaimed recording of Richard Strauss’ two horn concertos with Dennis Brain (shortly before he was tragically killed in a car accident returning from an Edinburgh Festival) and an exceptional account of Strauss’s Capriccio (then an operatic rarity) with Schwarzkopt. His reputation as a Schumann scholar was enforced when he recorded all the composer’s symphonies with the Dresden Staatskapelle.

In 1993 Sawallisch was appointed music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Some thought it was a stop-gap appointment but Sawallisch’s irrepressible energy ensured he galvanised the orchestra to become one of the great orchestras in America.

His dedication to the musicians and the city was demonstrated when a snow storm prevented the orchestra (and many of the audience) getting to the hall. Sawallisch insisted a concert went ahead and without rehearsal played the piano for the first act of Die Walküre – flawlessly – with a group of soloists. In 2003 when he retired from Philadelphia he was made their conductor laureate.

Sawallisch married Mechthild in 1952. They had one son. Both predeceased him.