Wolfgang Sawallisch, German Conductor, Dies at 89

February 25th, 2013

Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times

Wolfgang Sawallisch in 2003 with the Philadelphia Orchestra, which he led for nearly a decade.

Wolfgang Sawallisch, one of the last of the old-school German conductors, who led the Philadelphia Orchestra for nearly a decade and the Bavarian State Opera in Munich for two decades before that, died on Friday at his home in Grassau, Germany. He was 89.

His death was confirmed by the Bavarian State Opera.

Mr. Sawallisch embodied the German type of the “Kapellmeister” in the best sense: a man steeped in music, who knew every note of every score he conducted (often from memory), who was a supportive accompanist as well as an informed interpreter and who understood how to train, develop and lead an orchestra.

In part because his specialties were the so-called classics, from Haydn and Mozart through Schumann to Wagner, Bruckner and Strauss, he was sometimes labeled conservative or even dull, descriptions his performances belied. Never flashy, even somewhat understated, he was, at his best, insightful and illuminating.

While Mr. Sawallisch was renowned throughout Europe, he might have remained little known to American audiences had the Philadelphia Orchestra not tapped him to take over as music director in 1993. When he arrived at age 70, he underwent a veritable renaissance, evidently enjoying a new freedom, both artistic and political — far from the political squabbling that had increasingly overshadowed his last years in Munich.

“The last 10 years, with the Philadelphia Orchestra,” he said in 2006, “were really the top years of my symphonic life.”

Highlights of his recordings include the Strauss opera “Capriccio,” with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, and two versions of the four Schumann symphonies, with the orchestras of Dresden and Philadelphia.

Wolfgang Sawallisch was born on Aug. 26, 1923, in Munich, the second son of an insurance executive from northern Germany. At the age of 5, at a family party, he first encountered a piano, and so impressed his grandfather with his attempts at playing that his father was advised to start giving the boy lessons.

He was soon obsessed with the piano, and won his first competition at 10. When he was 11, however, he saw a production of “Hansel and Gretel” at the Bavarian State Opera and was so captivated that he decided he wanted to be a conductor instead. He promptly began taking private lessons in harmony, counterpoint, composition and conducting.

At 14, he started playing on the radio, ultimately becoming a member of a youth ensemble. It was here that he met Mechthild, his future wife, whom he married in 1952.

Mr. Sawallisch saw Richard Strauss conduct Mozart’s “Così Fan Tutte.” But the conductor he cited as his greatest influence was Wilhelm Fürtwängler; as a young man, he would travel from Munich to Berlin to see him rehearse the Philharmonic.

He was also impressed by Oswald Kabasta, who as head of the Munich Philharmonic after 1938 helped forge that city’s Bruckner tradition. The Bruckner influence remained; when Mr. Sawallisch first had the chance to choose his own program with the local orchestra in Augsburg, he conducted Bruckner’s Third Symphony.

The affinity lasted throughout his career. “It was as if he were not just performing the symphony, but also channeling Bruckner,” The New York Times’s critic Anthony Tommasini wrote of what he termed “an extraordinary performance” of Bruckner’s Fifth at Carnegie Hall in 2004.

Mr. Sawallisch was drafted into the German Army in 1942 and became a radio operator in the tank division on the Italian front. He ended up as an English prisoner of war, and composed two string quartets in camp.

In 1947, after getting a conservatory degree, he was hired as an opera coach in Augsburg. This position, which gave him hands-on experience in every aspect of opera, from conducting to working with the chorus, proved the basis of his firm grounding as an opera conductor.

After several years, he was invited to take over as the music director of the opera house in Aachen, Germany (where Karajan and Busch were among his predecessors). He was among the youngest to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic, which he first did in 1953, and at Bayreuth, where he first appeared in 1957.

A clear pinnacle of his career, however, was becoming music director of the Bavarian State Opera, one of the leading houses in Germany, in 1971, a position he was to hold, in various forms, for 20 years.

Those years were not completely happy ones. No one questioned the excellence of Mr. Sawallisch’s music-making. He brought wonderful singers to Munich — Fritz Wunderlich, Hermann Prey, Helen Donath, and others — and carried out ambitious plans like complete cycles of all of the operas of Wagner (in 1982-83) and of Strauss (1988-89). He showcased his musical breadth by accompanying singers in vocal recitals.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.