Wolfgang Sawallisch: Conductor acclaimed for his Richard Strauss interpretations

The role of the conductor, he wrote, is 'to make clear what the composer has written'

Wolfgang Sawallisch, one of Germany's greatest conductors, was heralded for his unique performances of Richard Strauss and his interpretations of Wagner. In a career spanning more than six decades he was renowned for his thoughtful, incisive and refined readings.

Following a thorough apprenticeship served in small regional opera houses, Sawallisch went on to conduct around the world – at the Bayreuth Festival and La Scala, with Tokyo's NHK Orchestra (which made him conductor laureate), the London and Vienna Philharmonics, L'Orchestre de Paris and the Israel and Czech Philharmonics. His career culminated in a 10-year tenure with the Philadelphia Orchestra, one of the United States' most highly regarded.

Although viewed by some as conservative and old-school, Sawallisch was admired for his natural talent, creativity and ability to lead, and was the antithesis of those stars of the podium who put image before music. Always self-deprecating, he shunned the limelight and encouraged younger colleagues who came for advice.

His music always sounded simple, clear, uncomplicated and transparent. This was highlighted in his 1988 autobiography For Clarity's Sake; the role of the conductor, he wrote, is “to be an interpreter whose job it is to make clear what the composer has written ... As a conductor I have no right to alter the original document.”

Born in Munich in 1923, Wolfgang Sawallisch was the second son of an insurance executive. He began playing the piano at five, and began to harbour a desire to be a concert pianist. This changed with a visit to the Munich National Theatre to see Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel; mesmerised by the conductor's movements, he began private lessons in harmony, counterpoint, composition and conducting. He played on the radio at the age of 14, and became a member of a youth ensemble – and met Mechthild, whom he married in 1952.

He saw Richard Strauss conduct Così fan tutte, and though he never met the composer, his musical personality had a lasting influence. Sawallisch studied at Munich's Wittelsbacher-Gymnasium and the Hochschule für Musik, but the Second World War intervened. In 1942 he was drafted into the Wehrmacht and became a radio operator in Italy, having narrowly missed out on being sent to the Eastern Front. He was captured in the Allied advance and spent time in American and British PoW camps, where he had the time to compose two string quartets.

After the war, Sawallisch completed his studies at the Munich conservatory and in 1947 started out as an opera-house répétiteur in Augsburg, Bavaria; three years later he graduated to conducting there. This gave him hands-on experience in every aspect of opera. As a pianist, too, he enjoyed early success, winning the duo prize at the 1949 Geneva International Competition with the violinist Gerhard Seitz.

Sawallisch furthered his operatic activities as general music director in Aachen from 1953-58, Wiesbaden (1958-60) and Cologne (1960-63). It was while in Aachen that he came to the attention of the EMI producer Walter Legge, who was famed for trawling the smaller opera houses in search of emerging talent. Legge invited Sawallisch to record in London with the Philharmonia, the orchestra he had hand-picked from the cream of London musicians. Sawallisch went on to make hundreds of recordings, including the Strauss opera Capriccio with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, and two versions of the four Schumann symphonies with the orchestras of Dresden and Philadelphia.

In 1953, Sawallisch succeeded Herbert von Karajan as German music's wunderkind when, aged 30, he became the youngest conductor to be invited to appear with the Berlin Philharmonic. The post led him to conduct Wagner at Bayreuth, and in 1957 he made his debut at La Scala, where in 1993 he became the first non-Italian to be awarded the Golden Baton.

His primary opera appointment came in 1971, when he was made Music Director of the Bavarian State Opera. Sawallisch conducted 1,156 performances during his 20 years in Munich, distinguished by the highest artistic standards and by the ability to attract the best singers, particularly in the German repertory, including Fritz Wunderlich, Hermann Prey and Helen Donath. He also accompanied singers in recitals.

Following tensions, Sawallisch left Munich in 1992 and crowned his career a year later, aged 70, with the Music Directorship of the Philadelphia Orchestra. He underwent a veritable renaissance in the US, enjoying a new-found freedom, both artistic and political, far from the squabbling that had overshadowed his last years in Munich. He guided the ensemble deftly through a decade of financial and artistic turmoil until his departure in 2003. He took the Orchestra to the Proms and spearheaded its centenary world tour in 2000. “These last years were really the top years of my symphonic life,” he recalled.

In Philadelphia he underlined 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.

In 1998 his wife died, which in fact brought him closer than ever to his music and orchestra. “Soon after his wife's death… he'd be overcome with emotion on the podium,” said the orchestra's principal second violinist Kimberly Fisher. “As upsetting as it was to see that, I feel honoured that I was a part of it. We all realised 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.”

In poor health, Sawallisch retired in 2006 and withdrew to his estate in the Bavarian Alps. He continued working with the trust he had founded, the Wolfgang Sawallisch Foundation, which supports music study for local children.

Wolfgang Sawallisch, conductor and pianist: born Munich 26 August 1923; married 1952 Mechthild Schmid (died 1998; one stepson, deceased); died Grassau, Bavaria 22 February 2013.

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