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.