He was a fixture on the international music scene for more than fifty years, and in all that time he never got enough credit. Wolfgang Sawallisch was a German conductor who was roughly contemporary with both Herbert von Karajan and Carlos Kleiber, and of the dozens of phlegmatic German kappellmeisters to appear before the world's great orchestras from their generation, Sawallisch was the only contemporary of theirs from a German-speaking land who clearly had the ability to match those two giants.
Not that you could tell from appearances. Karajan and Kleiber had charisma to match their extraordinary talent. But in an era when conductors are measured as much by their aesthetic appearance as any musical acumen, Sawallisch success seemed rather unlikely. While The Guardian's obituary called him suave, it would be difficult for any young American to think of him that way. His reputation in America was always more than a little unfair. In later years his comb-over and aviator glasses made him look more less like a conductor and more like a retired banker sitting on the orchestra board. And towards the end of his career gathered a reputation for musical arch-conservatism that was entirely undeserved considering all the more contemporary German composers he championed when he was head of the Bavarian State Opera. By the time he became music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra in his 70's, he was perhaps the textbook example of the geriatric foreign music director - a 'name conductor' (and not a huge name at that) brought to an American city because of past accomplishments in Europe. If he succeeded surprisingly well during his ten years in Philadelphia, it's because his musicmaking was nowhere near as dull or characterless as he seemed. Not eveybody agrees with that assessment, but the musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra certainly do.
He wasn't 100% consistent in his ability to get extraordinary performances (who is?), but Sawallisch had a particular combination of forces that worked a kind of miracle. He could draw the most stupefyingly viscral sound from orchestras, yet simultaneously shape it (Georg Solti could have learned a thing or two by watching him). He was not a conductor who went for the sort of individualized interpretations one finds in Furtwangler or Eugen Jochum, he was a thoroughgoing traditionalist who made the best case of any German conductor from his era to keep tradition going.
One look at Sawallisch's baton technique on video is all it takes to realize that this was a conductor with a technique that could hold its own with the greatest stick technicians in music history. But unlike Lorin Maazel or Seiji Ozawa, that stick technique was unfailingly used to shape phrases imaginatively. There's no doubt that Sawallisch could be uncomfortable when he wasn't feeling the music, but in the German masters he knew so well, he was among the greatest there has ever been. Sawallisch was a conductor of the anonymous school whom if he could would always hide behind the music, and yet when the music sounded as well as he made it, why not? He was a kappellmeister, but in very highest sense of the term.
Strauss: Four Last Songs
Wagner: Siegfried's Funeral March
Schumann: Symphony no 4
Britten: War Requiem - Libera Me
Schubert: Symphony no 9 "Great"
Wagner: Siegfried's Rhine Journey
Wagner: Overture and Venusberg Music to Tannhauser
Find Sawallisch's Ring Cycle in this Playlist
Mendelssohn: Elias/Elijah (excerpt - in German)
Beethoven: Ah! Perfido,
Beethoven: Symphony no 6 "Pastoral" (The Storm)
Beethoven: Piano Concerto no. 5 "Emperor"
Beethoven: Symphony no 7 (finale) (as a very old man, all he needs is a few fingers...)
Mozart: Symphony no 38 "Prague"
Mozart: Piano Concerto no. 22
Mozart: Piano Concerto no. 21 "Elvira Madigan"
Mozart: The Magic Flute
Brahms: Fourth Symphony
Brahms: First Symphony
Brahms: Piano Concerto no. 2
Bruckner: Sixth Symphony
Schubert: Complete Symphonies
Strauss: Don Quixote
Strauss: Symphonia Domestica
Rehearsing Till Eulenspiegel
Rehearsing the Three Boys in The Magic Flute
Conducting Edda Moser as Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute
Dvorak: Stabat Mater
Dvorak: Slavonic Dances
Britten: War Requiem - Dies Irae
Tchaikovsky: Symphony no 5 (finale)
Traveling man …
36 minutes ago