Wolfgang Sawallisch, 1923-2013
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Wolfgang Sawallisch, 1923-2013
Peter Dobrin, Inquirer Classical Music Critic
Wolfgang Sawallisch has died, Der Spiegel reports. The Philadelphia Orchestra's music director from 1993-2003 was 89.
Sawallisch died Friday, according to the Bavarian State Opera, which Sawallisch led for 20 years. He had been stricken in recent years by a number of diseases and conditions.
"The Bavarian State Opera is deeply saddened by the death of Wolfgang Sawallisch," said Bavarian Opera's current chief, Nikolaus Bachler. "For decades, he left his stamp on our house with his great personality and his inimitable art. His name, like no other, is connected with the Munich opera and even today his influence can still be felt."
Sawallisch defied expectations by taking the helm of the Philadelphia Orchestra at age 70 and remaking it into perhaps the most assured blend of orchestral polish and power in the United States.
Mr. Sawallisch, only the sixth music director in the orchestra’s history, succeeded the dashing, controversial Riccardo Muti in 1993. He reshaped the ensemble with more personnel changes than anyone since Leopold Stokowski, re-established the “Fabulous Philadelphians” as one of the authoritative oracles of the Austro-German repertoire, and eased the orchestra into its long-desired new concert hall.
The Philadelphia coda on Mr. Sawallisch’s long career also remade his own reputation. Before coming here, he had been known as a solid if stodgy kapellmeister. But the death of his wife, Mechthild, on Christmas Eve 1998, seemed to add emotional fire to his interpretations, and before his decade was over he was a different musician.
When asked about this, the ever-private Mr. Sawallisch would only say, “I’ve never had a closer relationship with music.”
Because his arrival coincided with the decline of the classical-recording industry and a lack of national radio broadcasts, few listeners outside the city heard the new Sawallisch. But those who did were astonished.
“The playing was so luminous and inexorable it seemed that Mr. Sawallisch was not just performing but channeling Bruckner,” wrote New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini of a 2004 Carnegie Hall performance.
A critic in Helsinki described the Sawallisch interpretation of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 on the orchestra’s 2000 European tour as “suffocating” in its power.
“Stokowski was the most charismatic conductor I ever played under, but Sawallisch was the most musical,” said veteran violinist Morris Shulik (who died in 2001). “In my opinion, Wolfgang Sawallisch is the best conductor we ever had.”
When asked whom she’d love to work with again — of all conductors living or dead — the legendary soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf named Mr. Sawallisch: “It’s as if you’re [making music] in private. A wonderful sensation.”
While Mr. Sawallisch was justly credited with restoring the famous Philadelphia sound, he demanded playing that was more transparent than Eugene Ormandy’s velvety ideal and discarded the razor-sharp edge that Muti had sought. He inspired unquestioning admiration from the orchestra players as well as guest soloists for his single-minded pursuit of his own sound, his musicality, absolute rhythmic security and elegant conducting technique that stood with James Levine’s and Lorin Maazel’s as the most perfect of our time.
Mr. Sawallisch had come to Philadelphia after tiring of infighting and turmoil at the Bavarian State Opera, and no sooner did he set up house on Rittenhouse Square than drama on his new job began.
The orchestra’s deficits mounted.
Fund-raising sloth for the orchestra’s new hall sapped time, energy and money from other projects.
The orchestra received word in the spring of 1996 that EMI, its longtime recording partner, was dropping the ensemble, and by fall musicians were on strike — a noisy dispute that lasted 64 days.
In February 1994, when a winter storm kept the orchestra from the Academy of Music for a performance of Wagner opera excerpts, Mr. Sawallisch came up with an unlikely solution: The orchestra threw open the doors so the public could hear (for free) the singers — accompanied by Mr. Sawallisch playing the entire score himself on piano.
One of the most dramatic accomplishments of his tenure, his scrupulous maintenance of the orchestra, was achieved quietly. He named several new assistant conductors. He replaced the concertmaster (twice) and named a new associate concertmaster, principal bass, trumpet, trombone, harp, English horn, and principal viola. Later, he had also engaged a new principal clarinet (three times) and bassoonist.
Some longtime orchestra members went obstreperously. But so deftly, and with such authority, did he ease out others that they hardly knew what had happened.
All told, he replaced more than a third of the orchestra.
This distinctively Germanic devotion to music is typical of the great musical culture of pre-World War II Germany, of which Mr. Sawallisch was among the last surviving exponents. It was a time of great musical amateurism, when a businessman would go home on his lunch hour and play a Beethoven sonata before returning to work. Of that era, Mr. Sawallisch recalled going to a performance of Mozart’s opera Cosi fan tutte conducted by none other than the great composer Richard Strauss, who played the recitatives himself from the keyboard while slyly interpolating quotations from his own works.
Also in the German tradition, Mr. Sawallisch served a long apprenticeship. He originally was trained as a pianist, but after emerging from World War II — he was drafted in the German army, served as a radio operator in Italy and was captured by the British — he started at the bottom of the opera world, working as a rehearsal pianist in Augsberg in 1947. He soon received his first conducting assignment with Hansel and Gretel.
Amid the postwar talent vacuum, the young Mr. Sawallisch fielded many offers from high places — too many, in his opinion. One of the youngest ever to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic (1953) and the Bayreuth Festival (1957), he rejected offers from the Metropolitan Opera and Vienna State Opera, saying he hadn’t the proper experience.
A 1957 meeting with soprano Schwarzkopf developed into an EMI contract and his first major opera recording. It was Richard Strauss’ Capriccio, with an all-star cast that included Schwarzkopf and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. It is still considered one of the great opera recordings.
Mr. Sawallisch worked with virtually all of the notable musicians of his era, many of whom let him in on trade secrets. Legendary pianist Walter Gieseking promised that if the conductor let him finish the Schumann Piano Concerto one bar earlier than the orchestra, the audience would stand up and cheer. And, Mr. Sawallisch later recalled, that’s exactly what happened.
Among instrumentalists, he also recorded with pianists Stephen Kovacevich and Annie Fischer (his favorite), hornist Dennis Brain (in still-unsurpassed recordings of the Strauss concertos) and violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann. Among singers, he recorded with Thomas Hampson, Margaret Price and Lucia Popp.
He pursued his operatic and symphonic career with concurrent appointments. In opera, he worked in Aachen (1953-8), Wiesbaden (1958-60) and Cologne (1960-63) while his orchestra activities included being principal conductor of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra 1960-1970 (with whom he made his U.S. debut on a 1964 tour) and the Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra 1961-73.
Mr. Sawallisch’s ultimate arrival in the elite circle of international conductors coincided with his tenure at the Bavarian State Opera, where he was music director from 1971 to 1993. The opera house was a symbol of rebuilt postwar Munich, and under him it became an unofficial, ongoing festival devoted to the city’s most famous musical son, composer Strauss.
Though a generalist, a complete musician, Mr. Sawallisch became one of the world’s Strauss specialists with interpretations marked by drama and sensuality without bombast. He is believed to be the only person to conduct all of that composer’s operas, with the curious exception of the popular Salome.
During this period, Mr. Sawallisch maintained a symphonic career as artistic director of Geneva’s Orchestre de la Suisse Romande from 1973-80 and began making regular appearances with Tokyo’s NHK Orchestra (which made him conductor laureate), the Vienna Philharmonic, L’Orchestre de Paris, the Israel Philharmonic, the Philharmonia of London and the Czech Philharmonic.
He recorded the complete Schumann symphonies with the Dresden Staatskapelle and the nine symphonies of Beethoven with the Royal Concertgebouw of Amsterdam.
Later in life, he added the ultimate prize to his symphonic career: a return to the Berlin Philharmonic after being unofficially blacklisted by its longtime chief conductor Herbert von Karajan, who was miffed that Mr. Sawallisch turned down his invitations to join the Vienna State Opera.
Though Mr. Sawallisch conducted opera regularly in Rome, Milan, Bayreuth and Salzburg, he never appeared at the Metropolitan Opera, having apparently created bad will by turning down Metropolitan Opera chief Rudolf Bing early on.
In his personal life, Mr. Sawallisch settled in Graussau in southern Bavaria near the Austrian border, an area full of landmarks from the life of Strauss, whom Mr. Sawallisch never met. There, he lived with his wife, Mechthild Schmid, whom he met at 16 when she was a singer and radio performer. They didn’t marry until 1952, after she had a son by another marriage, Jörg, whom Mr. Sawallisch legally adopted.
The marriage was close. She happily gave up her career, accompanied him everywhere and was his closest confidante. Not surprisingly, her oft-quoted words that moving to Philadelphia was the best thing they ever did — evident in the couple’s decision to buy a home on Rittenhouse Square — has been interpreted as having hidden significance.
While Mr. Sawallisch had been weary of the chronic artistic chaos of the opera world (he led 1,156 performances at the Bavarian State Opera), his power there was apparently waning. The offer to lead in Philadelphia provided not only the capstone to his career but a graceful exit from Munich, where his critics had dubbed him an “enemy of innovation.”
Not surprisingly, Mr. Sawallisch’s Philadelphia tenure was expected to be that of a trustee and conservator.
That was hardly the case.
He continued Muti’s tradition of concert opera, but after his famous ice-storm Wagner and a concert performance of Ariadne auf Naxos in the 1994-95 season that ran through three tenors in various states of voicelessness, he severely limited vocal appearances, and even those, such as Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle and Strauss’ Four Last Songs, were marred by cancellations. He quipped that he could write a book titled Always Trouble With Singers.
Elsewhere, Mr. Sawallisch broadened his repertoire considerably in Philadelphia, much of it with American music, which was highly unusual for a European musician, especially at an age when many conductors consolidate rather than expand their repertoire.
In addition to bringing such popular modern works as Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 to the orchestra, he developed a particular affection for Samuel Barber’s Symphony No. 1, featuring it often in his guest-conducting programs in Europe. He also counted the 2002 Concerto for Orchestra by Philadelphia composer Jennifer Higdon among the significant world premieres he led.
Some new additions, however, were learned purely out of duty. Regarding one new piece that the Philadelphia Orchestra commissioned, Mr. Sawallisch privately admitted, “I’ve been studying the piece for weeks, and I have yet to find a single bar of music.” Yet his performances rarely revealed a lack of sympathy.
His interests were strongest in Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schumann, Bruckner, Dvorak, Brahms, Wagner and, as always, his dear Strauss, even going so far as to program the composer’s seldom-heard wind serenade, The Happy Workshop, in his final season. Mahler, despite his great box-office appeal, was conspicuously absent from Mr. Sawallisch’s programs: He likened Mahler symphonies to “a man fumbling for the key to his front door and never finding it.” He had little interest in the second Vienna School, or even in much of the music of contemporary Germans.
The final months of the Sawallisch tenure were fraught with anxiety. Players saw the conductor decline dramatically from one month to the next and uncharacteristically cut rehearsals short with no explanation. The old-school, old-world conductor — once described by a longtime associate as “a sphinx in a tail coat” — even declined to discuss his health and rumored hospitalizations with the Philadelphia Orchestra administration.
Was it dignity? Denial? Clearly, Mr. Sawallisch knew his energies were limited and canceled European engagements with hopes of fulfilling all of his Philadelphia obligations at the close of his era. However, there was a sense that he didn’t want to fathom the extent of his ills. When urged by management to be re-examined by doctors in late April2003, Mr. Sawallisch at first consented only to talk with physicians on the phone — long distance, to Germany — and insisted that he was given “a clean bill of health” despite evidence to the contrary.
When he could muster his strength, as at his April 2003 farewell to Carnegie Hall, he was so ill he could barely take bows and suffered from wildly fluctuating blood pressure. Yet he gave what many consider to be one of the boldest performances of his Philadelphia decade.
The power of those last performances came in no small part from the adoration of his musicians.
“Soon after his wife’s death … he’d be overcome with emotion on the podium,” said principal second violinist Kimberly Fisher. “As upsetting as it was to see that, I feel honored that I was a part of it. We all realized he’s a human being. He’s part of our family. Let’s go with him. Let’s care about him. Let’s play for him.”
Indeed, when Mr. Sawallisch returned for visits as laureate, many musicians acted as if he — not successor Christoph Eschenbach, who took over in 2003 — were music director.
Mr. Sawallisch’s tenure coincided with great change in the orchestra world. Intense competition for leisure time forced unprecedented co-mingling of the artistic and marketing sides of orchestras, and he sometimes expressed regret at not being able to program works close to his heart — Schumann’s significant but unfamiliar oratorio-stage opera Paradise and the Peri, for instance.
But some of his omissions were the result of self-censoring, such as concert versions of opera that could be thwarted by delicate, often-canceling singers.
Another significant omission was the result of a rare bout of artistic timidity.
According to George Blood, the orchestra’s recording engineer, Mr. Sawallish was asked in 1997 if there was any work he’d never conducted but wanted to. Initially, he wouldn’t answer. When pressed, he finally named the Bach B Minor Mass.
“This work is such a monumental expression of the ability of the human mind to express the greatest thoughts in music, that I feel there is nothing I could bring to a performance which is not already on the page,” he said. “I do not think I will ever be able to perform this work."
- Peter Dobrin and David Patrick Stearns.
Former Inquirer music critic Daniel Webster contributed to this story.