Maestro Wolfgang Sawallisch, 1923-2013

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Wolfgang Sawallisch

Wolfgang Sawallisch, 89, died Friday evening at home in Grassau outside Munich.

  • He is credited for taking the helm of the Philadelphia Orchestra at age 70 and remaking it into the most assured blend of orchestral polish and power in the United States.
  • He had been stricken in recent years by a number of diseases and conditions.

Wolfgang Sawallisch, 89, the German maestro who 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, died Friday evening at home in Grassau outside Munich, according to a statement from the Bavarian State Opera.

He had been stricken in recent years by a number of diseases and conditions.

Mr. Sawallisch, only the orchestra's sixth music director in a century, succeeded the dashing, controversial Riccardo Muti in 1993. He reshaped the ensemble with more personnel changes than anyone since Leopold Stokowski, reestablished 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 musical world has really been deprived of one of its most experienced and respected figures," said Peter Alward, former president of EMI Classics and a longtime Sawallisch confidant. "His type of all-around musical ability scarcely exists today."

On Sunday in Verizon Hall, the orchestra held a long moment of silence in Sawallisch's memory after Yannick Nézet-Séguin led a performance of Wagner's Siegfried Idyll programmed to honor his predecessor.

The Philadelphia coda on Mr. Sawallisch's long career 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 the decade was over, he was a different musician.

Asked about that, the ever-private Mr. Sawallisch would say only, "I've never had a closer relationship with music."

He arrived as the classical-recording industry and national radio broadcasts were declining, so few people outside the city had 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," New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini wrote 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.

Insiders concurred.

"Stokowski was the most charismatic conductor I ever played under, but Sawallisch was the most musical," said violinist Morris Shulik, who died in 2001. "In my opinion, Wolfgang Sawallisch is the best conductor we ever had."

Asked with whom she'd love to work again - of all conductors living or dead - soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf named Mr. Sawallisch: "It's as if you're [making music] in private. A wonderful sensation."

Though Mr. Sawallisch was justly credited with restoring the famous "Philadelphia sound," he demanded playing more transparent than Eugene Ormandy's velvety ideal and discarded the razor-sharp edge Muti had sought. He inspired unquestioning admiration from the orchestra and 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 for its new hall sapped time, energy, and money from other projects. In 1996 came word that EMI, its longtime recording partner, was dropping the orchestra, and by fall, musicians were on strike, a noisy dispute that lasted 64 days.

In February 1994, when a storm kept players from the Academy of Music for a performance of Wagner opera excerpts, Mr. Sawallisch came up with a solution: The public was invited to hear (free of charge) the singers - accompanied by Mr. Sawallisch playing the entire score on piano.

One of his most dramatic accomplishments, his scrupulous maintenance of the orchestra, was achieved quietly. He named several 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 also engaged a new principal clarinetist (three times) and bassoonist.

Some longtime players 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.

 

Germanic devotion

His 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 amateurism, when a businessman would go home for lunch and play a Beethoven sonata before returning to work. Of that era, Mr. Sawallisch recalled a performance of Mozart's 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 the war - drafted into the German army, he 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 Schwarzkopf developed into an EMI contract and his first major opera recording, Strauss' Capriccio, with a starry cast including Schwarzkopf and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. It is still considered one of the great opera recordings.

Among instrumentalists, he 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.

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 symbolized rebuilt postwar Munich, and under him it became an ongoing festival devoted to the city's most famous musical son, Richard Strauss.

Though a generalist, Mr. Sawallisch became one of the world's Strauss specialists, his interpretations marked by drama and sensuality without bombast. He is believed to be the only person to have conducted all of Strauss' operas, with the curious exception of the popular Salome.

During that period, Mr. Sawallisch maintained a symphonic career as artistic director of Geneva's Orchestre de la Suisse Romande from 1973 to 1980 and began appearing regularly 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.

Later in life, he added the ultimate prize to his symphonic career: a return to the Berlin Philharmonic after being unofficially banned by its longtime chief conductor, Herbert von Karajan, who was miffed that Mr. Sawallisch declined his invitations to join the Vienna State Opera.

In his personal life, Mr. Sawallisch settled in Grassau in Bavaria near the Austrian border, an area full of landmarks from the life of Strauss, whom he 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 from another marriage, Jörg, whom Mr. Sawallisch legally adopted.

Though Mr. Sawallisch tired of the chronic chaos of the opera world (he led 1,156 performances at the Bavarian State Opera), his power there apparently was waning. The offer to lead in Philadelphia provided not only a career capstone but also a graceful exit from Munich, where his critics had dubbed him an "enemy of innovation."

Not surprising, 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 performance 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 he could write a book titled Always Trouble With Singers.

Elsewhere, he 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 important world premieres he led.

Some new additions, however, were learned purely out of duty. Regarding one work the orchestra commissioned, Mr. Sawallisch privately conceded, "I've been studying the piece for weeks, and I have yet to find a single bar of music." Yet his performances rarely showed a lack of sympathy.

His interests were strongest in Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schumann, Bruckner, Dvorak, Brahms, Wagner, and, always, his dear Strauss. Mahler, despite 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."

 

Dramatic decline

The final months of the Sawallisch era were fraught with anxiety. Players saw the conductor decline dramatically from one month to the next and cut rehearsals short without explanation.

When he could muster his strength, as at his Carnegie Hall farewell, he was so ill he could barely take bows and suffered from wildly fluctuating blood pressure. Yet he gave what many consider one of the boldest performances of his Philadelphia decade.

The power of those last performances came in no small part from his musicians' adoration.

"Soon after his wife's death . . . he'd be overcome with emotion on the podium," principal second violinist Kimberly Fisher said. "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 he visited as laureate, many players acted as though 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 commingling 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 major omission was the result of a rare bout of timidity. According to George Blood, then the orchestra's recording engineer, Mr. Sawallisch was asked in 1997 whether there was a piece he had never conducted but wanted to. Initially, he wouldn't answer. When pressed, he finally named Bach's 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."

 


Contact Peter Dobrin

at 215-854-5611 or pdobrin@phillynews.com.

 

Former Inquirer music critic Daniel Webster contributed to this article.