Wolfgang Sawallisch died Friday at the age of 89. I confess to have been working under the assumption that he had died years ago. Because conducting is often something that people at the highest levels do until they’re extremely fucking old (or extremely fucking dead in some cases), it’s unusual to think of a world-class maestro “retiring” to the Bavarian Alps and just chilling and playing piano and shit. But that’s exactly what Sawallisch did – his last major gig was with the Philadelphia Orchestra, which ended in 2003 and he retired “officially” in 2006 – something that, as I reflect upon that unbelievably relaxed cardigan/tie combo and wry smile, seems totally reasonable, ill health or otherwise.
What to make of his career? He had a string of high-profile positions, including Suisse Romande, Bavarian State Opera, and the aforementioned city where It’s Always Sunny, yet he is not really remembered as being one of the definitive leaders of those bands (I suppose that depends on your own perceptions of Ansermet, Ormandy, and Knappertsbusch or Krauss…Sawallisch’s tenure in Munich was the longest of any MD there, so maybe I’m just being difficult. On the plus side, he doesn’t have any Nazi ties!). He was generally a German core classics guy, noted for Strauss, Bruckner, Schubert, etc. and his recorded legacy is largely comprised of this, both symphonic and operatic. He was by all accounts a hell of a nice guy, and in that regard this tribute from Peter Alward is beautiful to read.
As I think about my own opinion on Sawallisch and where he stands in the pantheon of great conductors, he seems to occupy a strange nexus of being criminally underrated while also strangely forgettable. He is not someone I would ever think would make a top-20 list of greatest conductors, yet he probably wouldn’t inspire a rabid cult following like Horenstein or Kegel or my boy Otmar Suitner. His recordings of much of the core symphonic repertoire (Brahms, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, et al) do not compare favorably with other noted interpretations, yet his collection of the Schumann symphonies with the Staatskapelle Dresden is literally one of the five greatest things that’s ever happened to me, an absolutely staggering collection that I’m going to listen to in excess in the coming days.
Ultimately what I think Sawallisch will most be remembered for is his work as an accompanist, both as a pianist and as a conductor. He worked with pretty much every meaningful opera singer of the last half of the 20th century and some of the greatest instrumentalists as well, including the first love of any horn player who encounters it: Dennis Brain’s recordings of the two Strauss concerti. Sawallisch always had firm control of the ensemble and sounded so incredibly tuned in to the work of the soloist that you wondered if they were joined by a series of tubes like the internet. Listening and flexibility doesn’t come around like that all the time, and he was good as anyone in that arena.
Here’s a video that I posted some other time when writing about Strauss of Sawallisch and the illadelph performing the last movement of Sinfonia Domestica, and by performing I mean ruthlessly destroying everything in their path. It’s about as good a 15 minutes of orchestra/conductor symbiosis as you’ll find anywhere.