Wolfgang Sawallisch, (1923-2013) Dies at 89

Written By The Wagnerian on Tuesday, 26 February 2013 | 8:18:00 am

Obituary from the Guardian below.

Once described as "a sphinx in a tailcoat", the German conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch, who has died aged 89, conducted supremely idiomatic performances of Richard Strauss. His personality always melded seamlessly with the music he conducted. Though he enjoyed great veneration, the suave and personable Sawallisch did not cultivate it. "He never made a star of himself," said the soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. "He wants to make music … untrammelled." She added: "It's a wonderful sensation. It's as if you're in private."

Sawallisch's restrained physicality, contradicted by the occasional, discreet leap at the end of The Firebird, later gave way to a particularly intense passion. In middle age he had a certain emotional aloofness, yet his readings of Shostakovich and Brahms symphonies in his 70s were described as "suffocating" in their extremity. His Beethoven Pastoral symphony left hardened recording engineers in tears. While his early 1970s recordings of the Schumann symphonies with the Dresden Staatskapelle had long been considered classics, Sawallisch eclipsed even his own standard with the Philadelphia Orchestra's 2003 live recording of the Symphony No 2 – despite such ill health that some feared he would collapse mid-performance.

The spur of this Indian summer was a personal sadness. Sawallisch's change in temperament – which showed itself only in certain repertoire – dated from the death of his wife of 46 years, Mechthild, in 1998. In the months following, the maestro was known to break down during rehearsals of Austro-Germanic repertoire, but he refused to discuss his inner life, aside from saying: "I've never felt such a close relationship with music."

Born in Munich, Sawallisch studied at the city's Wittelsbacher-Gymnasium and the Hochschule für Musik. His training as a pianist was interrupted by the second world war, during which he was a radio operator in the German army stationed in Italy. He was captured and spent time in both American and British PoW camps. After the war, he started as an opera house répétiteur in Augsburg, Bavaria, then graduated to conducting there. He furthered his operatic activities as general music director in Aachen (1953-58), Wiesbaden (1958-60) and Cologne (1960-63).

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