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‘A gentleman and a conductor’ – Wolfgang Sawallisch by a close friend

Peter Alward worked with Wolfgang Sawallisch for 25 years as a producer and executive at EMI and became part of his inner circle. Hours after the great conductor’s death, he has written this appreciation for Slipped Disc.


The great EMI recording impresario Walter Legge spotted Sawallisch’s talent in the early fifties and from that time on, he was a regular visitor to the recording studios, with an admirable discography encompassing all facets of his art. The artists with whom he worked on stage, concert and in the recording-studio form a veritable Who’s Who of many of the greatest figures in classical music over the next forty years, since he was revered as a partner who saw himself at most as primus inter pares, never as dictator.



A formal figure, seldom seen without a jacket and tie even in rehearsal or the recording studio, he nevertheless possessed a dry, essentially Bavarian sense of humour and took a keen if dignified interest in music world gossip.

In the twenty or so years in which I worked with him on a regular basis, through his recording relationship with EMI, I never heard him raise his voice or saw him lose his temper. He could be very direct in his comments, but never wounding or unfair. He was also immensely practical.

Two incidents stand out as examples of his unflappable nature: we were in mid-recording of Strauss’ Elektra in Munich, when the singer of a minor but important role rang to say he was sick. Sawallisch asked the orchestra to break for twenty minutes – and disappeared. He returned, having walked over to the opera house next door, leading a slightly bemused Kurt Moll by the hand. Almost before he knew it, the great German bass had a music stand and a microphone placed in front of him and was soon dispatched back to the rehearsal from which he had been ‘kidnapped’, having recorded a role he had never previously seen.


The other legendary story – which I witnessed – was the concert in Philadelphia where Sawallisch, suddenly finding himself without an orchestra due to a violent snowstorm, decided to go ahead nevertheless, playing the entire concert, including the first Act of Walküre, from the piano.

Sawallisch was proud to be known as a Kapellmeister. He was the antithesis of those stars of the podium who put image before music, acrobatics before simple handiwork. He used his natural authority as an encouragement towards his fellow musicians, never as a threat. He never openly criticized colleagues and even at the height of career, demonstrated an admirable lack of malice or jealousy towards his peers. He was extremely well informed about and interested in new talent and always prepared to encourage younger colleagues when they came to him for advice.

As an artist, his appetite for work was immense, as was the repertoire he amassed over the years. Equally at home in the concert hall and the opera house, he was also a pianist of extraordinary accomplishment and liked nothing more than to play chamber music or accompany singers in lieder recitals.

His career could actually be regarded as a textbook study of how a major conductor’s path used to be charted (and from which some might still benefit today!). His operatic spurs were won from humble beginnings as a repetiteur, culminating in the Music Directorship of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich.

His years in Munich were distinguished by the very highest standards of orchestral playing and by the ability to attract the best singers, particularly in the German repertory. He was no friend of Regietheater, however, and after his departure never entered an opera house pit again, feeling that he was too old to fight with directors whom he felt often arrived knowing neither the notes nor the language of the operas they were intending to direct.


His symphonic career took in orchestras of considerable stature both in Europe and Japan, culminating in his Music Directorship of the Philadelphia Orchestra. In Philadelphia, he proved his immense strength as an orchestral trainer and despite his age, threw himself with vigour into contemporary American music, performing a number of world premieres. He also became adept at coping with the differences in responsibility facing an American Music Director and with the rules and strictures imposed by the Unions.

The death of Wolfgang Sawallisch’s wife Mechthild in 1998 was a major blow. The couple had been close friends with Cardinal Ratzinger, who always attended Sawallisch’s regular concerts at Santa Cecilia in Rome. Indeed, Ratzinger came to Munich at his own expense to conduct the Requiem Mass in Mechthild’s honour. After her death, Sawallisch became a  lonely figure and when his health no longer permitted public performance, retired to his estate in Bavaria.

Nevertheless, he founded a Trust to encourage young musicians and continued to visit the music school in Grassau which was founded as a result, on a regular basis. Until quite recently he played Mozart and Haydn piano sonatas for his own enjoyment and continued to take a keen interest in classical performances on radio, television and recording.

In the last years, we had remained in contact and I was delighted when, in early January, I heard his inimitable voice on the telephone inviting me to tea. Just one month ago, I drove over to Grassau and spent two hours in his company. I found a very frail old gentleman, in full possession of all his mental faculties, both interested and interesting on all that was going on in the musical world.

Despite being in a wheelchair, he insisted on accompanying me to the door on my departure. Even if his strength had failed, his personality remained – as does his considerable legacy, both with the orchestras he led and musicians he influenced, as well as in the many documents in sound and vision which give future generations access to his myriad abilities.


(c) Peter Alward/Slipped Disc all rights reserved




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  1. I loved going to his concerts in Philadelphia! Performances that particularly stand out include a concert version Ariadne in the old Academy, and then Beethoven’s 9th and Bruckner’s 5th in the new Verizon Hall. The Bruckner was remarkable! Sawallisch was sitting to conduct by that time, but he had firm control over the orchestra and they really played for him. He will be missed.

  2. What a beautifully written memoir of a great conductor!

  3. Rosemary Zharby says:

    Beautifully expressed with such feeling for the man and his music making. Thank you Peter.

  4. Eyal Braun says:

    toward the end of his career, he started conducting regularly in Israel with the Israel PO. The orchestra players loved him very much, and the result was some of the finest concerts of the IPO I have ever attended- a magnificant Schubert “Great” symphony , Schumann 4th, “Tod und Verklarung”.

  5. Brian Meighan says:

    Wolfgang Sawallisch was a musician and conductor who presented the music first and always without drawing attention to podium antics. A real conductor who will be sadly missed. We are left with great recordings to remind us of his art.

  6. Erica Fox Zabusky says:

    Such a moving and personal tribute to Sawallisch. I had the privilege of working with the Maestro in Philadelphia and visiting him in Grassau. The depiction of him is spot-on, his character captured perfectly. Thank you for sharing your insights into this great man.

  7. Not many conductors nowadays are “maestros” like Sawallisch was: mastering orchestral and opera repertoire, opera house director in Munich, chamber musician, a pianist performing with first league singers in recitals. Who is in this league today ??? Just a few.

  8. Frank-Michael Fischer says:

    How about some listening to one of Sawallisch’s extraordinary performances: ?

  9. Pierre Audi says:

    This tribute is a model of how tributes should be written. It is informative, generous and personal. Thank you for posting it.

  10. Patrick Garvey says:

    Yessss, ……. thank you Peter.

  11. Naniwanonagori says:

    A most moving obituary I have ever read.

    Tokyoite fond of classical music always appreciated the Maestro’s regular appearance at the NHK Symphony Orchestra for over 30 years till his retirement.

    The Maestro’s greatest contribution was to ground the NHK SO. Also noteworthy was his effort to disseminate the music of Richard Strauss. Without him, the Tokyoite failed to taste Strauss.

  12. I love the fact that on the Schubert 9 video above, he does NOT conduct the horn solo but only gestures to the horns to start in their own time, knowing he can trust the VPO. Lesser conductors would not do this, out of a feeling of self-importence or lack of trust in the musicians. Bless you, Mr Sawallisch

  13. Cathy Barbash says:

    Thank you for this eloquent tribute, Peter. Those of us who had the privilege to work with Maestro in Philadelphia count ourselves truly blessed. Another memory of how music was his core: he was conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. A very big occasion, the 20th anniversary of their first historic visit, with President Jiang Zemin in the audience, about which he could have cared less: as the first half of the concert ended, Maestro was overcome by the music of the Schubert “Unfinished” he had just conducted and murmured that after this work, really, the concert should just end so we could meditate on its beauty and meaning.

  14. What a beautiful tribute. Thank you for this. I was the Maestro’s first major appointment outside the orchestra. To have my young ears shaped by this professor is the ultimate gift as a musician. There were many performances where you felt like all was right in the world and time was suspended. He will stay with us in our music forever.

  15. Simon Morgan says:

    The Bavarian State Opera has held a memorial service today (March 7) and has posted some pictures on its Facebook page.

  16. Mark Stratford says:

    The first movement of Sawallisch’s Rhenish Symphony makes you want to get up and dance. Totally exhilarating.

    That reminds me, in the recently published “Dinner with Lenny” by Jonathan Cott, Bernstein tells how awful it was listening to Boulez conduct Schumann. Lenny said you want to run out of the hall and that Boulez had no “love” for this music !

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