A Tribute to Wolfgang Sawallisch

Written by: Peter Alward

The Classical Source is delighted to publish a tribute to Wolfgang Sawallisch by Peter Alward, the President of EMI Classics, written to coincide with the Philharmonia Orchestra’s 80th birthday concerts for Maestro Sawallisch (born 26 August 1923)

Walter Legge, the Philharmonia’s founder, was peerless when it came to spotting real and lasting talent. It is no surprise that Wolfgang Sawallisch appeared in his sights at an early stage of his career and that Legge entrusted him with such illustrious projects as the Strauss Horn Concertos with Dennis Brain and the legendary recording of Strauss’s Capriccio which included Legge’s wife Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as the Countess.

Now, nearly 50 years later, Wolfgang Sawallisch remains one of the world’s foremost musicians with a breadth of experience and repertoire the envy of many of his colleagues.

It has been my privilege to be associated with Wolfgang Sawallisch (and his late and greatly missed wife Mechthild, who was a pillar of support throughout his long career) through his recording relationship with our Company over the last 25 years. When the Philharmonia asked me to sketch a brief portrait of him, I felt and still feel a little presumptuous. It is also difficult to be objective about someone for whom one has such immense admiration.

However… First impressions of Wolfgang Sawallisch must include those of old-world courtesy and dignity. Always impeccably dressed, even in rehearsal, always precise in requests (never demands) and fluent in at least four languages which makes the lives of orchestral musicians, soloists and journalists the world over so much easier!

Sawallisch’s podium style is essentially unfussy and devoid of those narcissistic gestures that one feels some of his colleagues must practise for hours in front of mirrors. He is and always has been a servant of the music and although he may occasionally have been eclipsed in the short term by some podium matadors, who then promptly vanished again in a cloud of their own overpowering ego-scented cologne, the secret of his longevity has been to build on his own experiences and savour them as they improve like vintage claret.

In the true traditions of a Kapellmeister (definitely not a pejorative term in Sawallisch’s vocabulary), one of his major strengths is as an orchestral trainer. Orchestral musicians can smell a fraud at a hundred paces but Sawallisch has managed over the years to convince even the most hard-bitten of them that he knows as much about their difficulties and needs as they, and can guide them around the tightest corners of even the most complex score.

The same applies to singers. As both long-term Music Director and some-time Intendant of one of Europe’s most distinguished opera houses in Munich, Sawallisch had both a musician’s ear and a businessman’s nose for the foibles of these most sensitive creatures. Whether coaching at the piano or negotiating their fees, Sawallisch knew instinctively when to give or pull in the reins.

This stood him in perfect stead for the task of running an American orchestra and he took to the challenge of re-shaping the great Philadelphia Orchestra for the 21st century, at an age when many would be looking for an easier life, with a vigour and a sense of excitement and adventure that would be the envy of many a younger man.

One of Sawallisch’s most impressive qualities is his versatility. His repertory encompasses a goodly number of the major works of the late-18th, 19th and 20th centuries in both the orchestral and operatic literature. In Philadelphia he was also actively involved in commissioning new works. In addition to this he is enormously experienced as a chamber musician and lieder accompanist and his pianistic abilities are legendary among some of the most distinguished lieder singers of the last 40 years from Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, through Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau to Thomas Hampson.

But what of Wolfgang Sawallisch, the man? Unlike a number of his profession who actively court the limelight away from the podium, Sawallisch is an intensely private man who prefers the seclusion of his beautiful home in the Bavarian hills rather than the essentially shallow world of the party-going star. He has a dry sense of humour, an analytical mind on world affairs and – a rare quality in his profession – a seeming total absence of either malice or jealousy towards his peers.

His diary, even at the age of 80, is a source of wonder to those dealing with him on a regular basis. Although frequently on the move, he never exudes a sense of stress. He has never had a ‘manager’, preferring to handle his own affairs. Despite his exacting schedule, faxes will be answered almost by return, telephone calls taken with no sign of the unapproachability or noli mi tangere attitude of some of his colleagues. When he wishes to be left in peace, he will indicate this in a gentle but definite manner with no possibility of offense being given or taken.

Conductors tend to improve with age and also to outlive more sedentary and less aerobic professions. The traditions, which Sawallisch upholds, need to pass to a new generation less concerned with hype and transitory fame than with the standards which earlier generations regarded as natural and healthy. Long may he live to pass on the flame.

  • Peter Alward’s tribute to Wolfgang Sawallisch is dated 4 May 2004. It was published in the Philharmonia Orchestra’s programmes for its Royal Festival Hall concerts on 10 & 17 June, which unfortunately Wolfgang Sawallisch was unable to conduct
  • Peter Alward’s piece is reprinted here with the kind permission of the author and in agreement with the Philharmonia Orchestra
  • Sawallisch Schumann Symphonies
  • EMI Classics

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