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A great conductor, RIP

Wolfgang Sawallisch died on Friday, aged 89.

His greatest fame came late in life as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra(1993-2003), but his prime achievement was 21 years at the head of the Bavarian State Opera (1971-92), instilling performance standards that were the envy of its rivals in Vienna and Berlin.

A gifted pianist, he accompanied many of the Golden Age singers. He recorded mostly with EMI (official bio below). Never a forceful personality, his modest dedication to the work in hand elicited outstanding results. His recordings of the Schumann symphonies are in a class of their own.

UPDATE: For personal memories by a close colleague, see here.


Wolfgang Sawallisch was born in Munich in 1923. His musical studies were interrupted by the war, but after graduating from Munich’s Hochschule für Musik he took up his first professional engagement in 1947 as a répétiteur in Augsburg. Six years later he became the youngest general music director in Germany when he moved to Aachen.

Between 1960 and 1970 Sawallisch was General Music Director at Hamburg and Principal Conductor of the Philharmonic State Symphony Orchestra there. In addition he was Principal Conductor of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and both orchestras elected him an honorary member and honorary conductor. From 1972 to 1980, as successor to Paul Kletzki, Sawallisch was Artistic Director of the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. In 1971 he became the General Music Director of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich and, having overseen all artistic activities on a temporary basis in the 1976-77 season, took on the additional role of Director of the Bavarian State Opera in 1982.

In September 1990 Wolfgang Sawallisch was appointed Music Director of The Philadelphia Orchestra; he officially took up the position at the start of the 1993-94 season and spends 15 weeks of each year with the orchestra. Sawallisch has been conducting regularly in Philadelphia since 1984, and since May 1993, when he toured with the orchestra to Japan, mainland China and Hong Kong, he has undertaken many distinguished tours with the orchestra.

Sawallisch has made guest appearances with nearly all of the world’s major orchestras and has conducted at many festivals including the Proms, Bayreuth, Salzburg, Edinburgh, Prague, Lucerne, Montreux and Florence. He conducts regularly at La Scala, Milan, and is an honorary conductor of the NHK Symphony Orchestra in Tokyo and of the Accademico Onorario of Rome’s Santa Cecilia. Sawallisch regularly conducts the Vienna Philharmonic, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, The London Philharmonic and the Orchestre National de France and in 1996 he completed a three-year Beethoven cycle with the Orchestre de Paris. Wolfgang Sawallisch is also a gifted pianist and has given recitals with many of the leading instrumentalists and singers of our time, including Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf.

Sawallisch has been associated with EMI since 1955 and among his earlier recordings for the label was Strauss’ Capriccio with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. His most notable releases include Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten, the first ever uncut version of the opera, which won several major international awards, including the Grand Prix de l’Académie Charles Cros and the Prix Caecilia, and his recording of Brahms’ Piano Concerto No.1 with Stephen Kovacevich which won the 1993 Gramophone Concerto Award. In November 1991 EMI Classics released on Laserdisc and VHS Wagner’s complete Der Ring des Nibelungen with the Bayerische Staatsoper. This video received the 1990 German Video Winner special prize and, more recently, the 1993 Gramophone Best Video Award. Sawallisch was awarded the Bacchetta d’Oro 1993 from the Teatro alla Scala. He is the first non-Italian conductor to win this award.

Wolfgang Sawallisch remains very active as a recording artist. His discography on EMI Classics now includes a disc of orchestral music by Wagner and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben and oboe concerto, Also Sprach Zarathustra, Don Juan and Burleske both with The Philadelphia Orchestra. More recently he has recorded the Brahms Double Concerto with Frank Peter Zimmermann, Heinrich Schiff and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and, as pianist, Schubert’s Winterreise with the baritone Thomas Hampson. More recent EMI Classics releases include Sawallisch accompanying Ole Edvard Antonsen in a collection of twentieth century trumpet sonatas in February 1998 and the release of the video soundtrack of Wagner’s Ring Cycle with the Bayerische Staatsoper as a 14 CD box set in March 1998.

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  1. Robert Fitzpatrick says:

    A remarkable artist and a man of great personal warmth. His impact on music in Philadelphia continues today because he appointed a significant number of the current principal players. He was the perfect successor to Muti and Ormandy. One of the few conductors about whom one can say: and seldom was heard, a discouraging word…

    • Well that is extremely sad. Wolfgang Sawallisch was a wonderful musician especially in music of the Romantic period. I had the good fortune to work on some of his recordings during my time at EMI in the 1990s. I remember one performance at the Royal Festival Hall of the Eroica symphony which we have all heard numerous times and he produced a revelatory interpretation with the LPO; I have never forgotten it. And one recording I would ask to take to Heaven would be his EMI set of the Schumann symphonies with the Staatskapelle Dresden. Simply unmatched. The world has lost a very special musician.

      • I heard that Eroica. He let the orchestra sing…. He was a really great theatre conductor, a rather rare skill these days… RIP

  2. Robert Fitzpatrick says:
  3. RIP!!

  4. Lambert Oschner says:

    The very sad thing was that his one and only son, Jörg, died last month at the age of 68. He too followed his only child to the better place now…..

  5. I owe him a great debt. In the 1960′s he made an EMI recording of Bach cantatas including the Actus Tragicus. This moved me and enriched my musical horizon. This recording launched me into an understanding of the greatness of the Bach cantata repertory. Though I do not interpret the work in any way like his performance, his was the awakening for me and so 50 years later I am deeply grateful.

  6. Mr Oakmountain says:

    Anja Silja said in a radio interview a couple of years ago that Wieland Wagner had always referred to Sawallisch as “Sacra-Wallisch”. It was (probably) a joking tribute to the conducter’s sincerity and refusal to compromise on musical vision. In the end they parted ways over the question of what roles Silja should sing in Bayreuth: Wieland had his way in Tannhäuser (“Keine Silja, kein Sawallisch”), but Sawallisch refused her als Eva in Meistersänger and left Bayreuth. I also remember an interview with Sawallisch in which he played down this incident, saying that Meistersinger was not an ideal opera for Bayreuth anyway and that is had been the right time for him to do something else. A gentleman who apparently saw no need to speak ill of other people.

  7. RIP

  8. Sad news indeed.

    I only saw Sawallisch conduct 4 times, but the last was probably the most memorable. In 2000 (29 Oct) he was booked by the Philharmonia to conduct Elijah at Birmingham Symphony Hall. During negotiations he was asked to perform the work in English. Why, he asked, would I do it in English, I have only ever performed the work in German. It was explained that the world premiere, conducted by Mendelssohn, was in Birmingham and it was sung in English. He agreed & it was a wonderful performance, at the end of which the then Lord Mayor of Birmingham was aksed to thank him for taking the trouble to perform the work in English.

    When he did so, Sawallisch said ‘Of course I did it in English, This is Birmingham. How could I have ever done it in German in Birmingham!!’

  9. David Boxwell says:

    Irony: I just finished listening to his late 80s Ring for the first time (part of a jumbo Wagner bicentennial box issued by EMI [36 CDs for about 80 bucks, or 50 quid]; and it’s been seriously underrated. In fact, cheek by jowl with Gergiev’s new Walkure, WS was indeed a master Wagnerian, pacing the whole epic beautifully.

  10. What a sad news. A master that could be considered out fashion for the present standard, since he had never made the podium gestures an end in itself. I’ve could attempt two role season at the academy in Philly, almost every concert. At that time I was living at Locust with Broad St, and it was quite usual to see around the orchestra musicians including Sawallisch. Twice times or more, I could take some seconds of his time just to say “Morning maestro”. He was always very tender.

  11. Saddly i am reading that Wolfgang Sawallisch passed away. He was a great musicians with a great peronality,
    and a MENSCH.

    I saw him in Lucerne, and Tel Aviv.


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