Wolfgang Sawallisch (1923-2013)

Wolfgang SawallischI have been quite moved the last couple of days reading the tributes to conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch, who passed away on February 22 at the age of 89. Classical music enthusiasts couldn’t help but be aware of his long career and many recordings. Over the years, he served as Principal Conductor of the Vienna Symphony, Music Director of the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Bavarian State Opera and Philadelphia Orchestra, and Honorary Conductor Laureate of Tokyo’s NHK Symphony. He was also a fine pianist, frequently serving as lieder accompanist for many of the world’s great singers. Dating back to the LP days, I have long owned and been an enthusiastic fan of his recording of the complete symphonies of Franz Schubert, and his much-lauded collaboration with Dennis Brain on the Richard Strauss Horn Concertos. Reading of the changes he brought to the Philadelphia Orchestra when he took over as their Music Director at age 70 confirmed the belief that I had had that he was a much-loved figure, and made a huge impact, there.

It was amazing to read that when famous soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was asked what particular conductor, living or dead, she would wish to work with again, she named Wolfgang Sawallisch, saying “It’s as if you’re [making music] in private. A wonderful sensation.” And, while I don’t at all agree with him, one cannot help but smile at Sawallisch’s characterization of Gustav Mahler’s symphonies as “a man fumbling for the key to his front door and never finding it.”

Philly.com has a long and excellent obituary, as well as tributes from musicians and friends. The New York Times obituary has quite a lot of information, as does NPR’s Deceptive Cadence blog (accompanied by some nicely chosen Sawallisch videos). There’s also a brief survey of his recordings at the Gramophone website. YouTube videos featuring his work include complete performances of Strauss’s Symphonia domestica and Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. I’ll try to strike a more joyous note, with Mr. Sawallisch conducting the NHK Symphony in one of my all-time favorite symphonic movements, the Finale of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7.

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