Today's Classical Music Video

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Wolfgang Sawallisch: In Memoriam

Wolfgang Sawallisch passed away on February 22 at the age of 89. He had been in retirement for some years. He was born in Munich and followed the traditional path of young conductors of his generation through smaller opera houses and ending up as music director of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. He became known as an authoritative conductor of the music of Richard Strauss and Carl Orff among others. But he had a wide repertoire that encompassed the work of many contemporary composers.

Sawallisch was undemonstrative in his conducting style but behind that restrained demeanour lay a a vast musical knowledge. With lesser orchestras he could be dull. Years ago I attended a concert conducted by Sawallisch with the Vienna Symphony that was notable only for its blandness. Yet years later he conducted a superb performance of Elgar's Enigma Variations with the Philadelphia Orchestra that was as fine as any I have ever heard.

He made numerous recordings and most of them are excellent. I particularly treasure a set of the Schuman symphonies with the Dresden Staaatskapelle.

Sawallisch was a first-rate pianist and often appeared with leading singers in lieder recitals and in chamber music performances. One of the legendary stories about Sawallisch is the time a major snowstorm hit Philadelphia and prevented the orchestra from getting to the hall. Sawallisch made it though and insisted that the show must go on. It was an all-Wagner program and he played all the orchestral parts on the piano himself.

Sawallisch was beloved by musicians wherever he went, not least of all by the members of the Israel Philharmonic. In this 2001 video he leads the IPO in an excerpt from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. It's a beautiful performance full of rich string playing and carefully realized detail.

Paul E. Robinson



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