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Wolfgang Sawallisch (1923-2013)


Conrad Hansen plays Tchaikovsky

Remington R-199-197: Conrad Hansen plays Thaikovsky's Piano Concerto with the RIAS Symphony Orchestra conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch

Remington R-199-194: Wolfgang Sawallisch conducts the RIAS Symphony Orchestra in Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 and Handel's Concerto Grosso No. 5

Remington R-199-205 with the Brahms program

Sawallisch conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra on early Columbia blue silver SAX 2285

The Philips Box of Wagner opera's recorded life at Bayreuth. Hans Knappertsbusch conducts "Parsifal" and Wolfgang Sawallisch conducts "The Flying Dutchman" and "Tannhäuser", a 11 LP set, later issued as Philips 6747 242.

Mendelssohn's Complete Symphonies.

A re-release on Fontana of Altrhapsodie and Schiksalslied with Aafje Heynis, and the Haydn Variations. Wolfgang Sawallisch conducts the Vienna Symphony Orchestra.

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He started as a rehearser (repetitor) in Augsburg, Germany. Then followed posts of principal conductor in Aachen, Wiesbaden and Cologne.
His international career began in Bayreuth and Vienna and this led him to Berlin, Geneva, Munich and Philadelphia.

But before conducting an unconventional Wagner in 1961 and 1962, and leading the 'Wiener Symphoniker' from 1963 on, and making recordings with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam for Philips, he had made a few recordings with the RIAS Symphony Orchestra in Berlin for Don Gabor's Remington label. That was in 1954, just one year after he had made his debut with the Berlin Philharmonic and previously had followed a course in conducting with Igor Markevitch in Salzburg.

Wolfgang Sawallisch belongs to the post war generation which reacted to the atmosphere and mentality which had brought about the great disaster in Europe and in most of the world. His was a generation which also encompassed the specific styles and views of elder composers like Paul Hindemith, Boris Blacher, Gottfried Von Einem, and Werner Egk.

Being educated in the classics, Sawallisch got acquainted with the music and idioms of these composers only after the war. Although he conducted many a modern composition, he deserved his place by interpreting Beethoven, Brahms and foremost Wagner.

Nevertheless Sawallisch's style represents a "neue Sachlichkeit", a precise and more intellectual approach which promised purity of sound and originality of interpretation, close to the score. In fact this shows a far less emotional involvement which is in strong contrast to the styles of the older generation of great conductors like Arturo Toscanini, Bruno Walter, Willem Mengelberg, the younger Herbert von Karajan, and foremost of Wilhelm Furtwängler.

Developing an individual style, a specific idiom, is not only dependent on the new time frame, the historical context, but is inherently a result of the character and the intellectual make-up of a conductor. The fact that Wolfgang Sawallisch was a prisoner of war from 1942 till 1945 (he was captured by the British army when he was serving in Italy), may have strengthened his approach, as may have the influence of composer Joseph Haas (who was director of Munich's Musikakademie) with whom Sawallisch studied very shortly.
His clean and distant approach to the great classics, which can already be heard in the early Remington recordings, became and remained Sawallisch's footprint.

About the same time when Laszlo Halasz had invited Wolfgang Sawallisch to record for Remington, EMI became aware of the young conductor who's star was rising quickly in the music capitals of Europe after the war. The first recording for EMI was of Antonin Dvorak's 4th (8th) Symphony (Columbia 33SX1034 - released in January of 1955). This debut was followed in 1957 by Carl Orff's Carmina Burana (with Agnes Giebel, Marcel Cordes, Paul Kuen - Columbia 33CX1480), Horn Concerti of Richard Strauss played by Dennis Brain (Columbia 33CX1491) and Piano Concertos Nos. 21 and 22 of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with pianist Annie Fischer (33CX1630). The Mozart recording was released in March 1959, yet no stereo edition exists.

In the early Columbia SAX stereo series the Suites from Swan Lake and The Nutcracker were released (Peter Tchaikovsky - SAX 2306 - 1959), and Carl Orff's "Die Kluge" (with soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and tenor Rudolf Christ - Columbia SAX 2456 - 1962).

Wolfgang Sawallisch in 1962 conducting - Photo Arjé Plas
Wolfgang Sawallisch in 1962 as photographed by Arjé Plas.
Picture edited by R.A.B., taken from the cover of Philips release 835 176 with the Fourth Symphony of Johannes Brahms.

Being a good organizer and having experience with many different ensembles, Sawallisch was invited in 1957 to conduct "Tristan und Isolde" at Bayreuth, which could use a new and young conductor. This performance drew the attention of the entire music world and eventually led to signing up with the Philips label which released the life performances of "Tannhäuser" (1962), "Der Fliegende Holländer" (1962) and "Lohengrin" (1962), all done at Bayreuth. These performances were regarded as rather controversial, especially "Tannhäuser", not so much because of the young conductor, but because of the setting by Richard Wagner's grandson Wieland. Wieland wanted to set his mark by combining the Paris and the Bayreuth versions, and this was much against the taste of the serious Wagner-adepts.

Soon other Philips recordings followed. Franz Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony and Felix Mendelssohn's "Italian" with the Wiener Symphoniker of which ensemble he had become music director in 1958 and for which orchestra he had great significance until he left in 1970.

With the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra he recorded Beethoven's 6th Symphony ("Pastoral"), and Beethoven's 7th Symphony which was very well received. He also recorded Peter Tchaikovsky's 5th, and a complete cycle of the Symphonies of Johannes Brahms, all released on the Philips HiFi-Stereo label.

With his Vienna Symphony Orchestra he recorded a complete cycle of the symphonies of Franz Schubert and with Staatskapelle Dresden the complete Symphonies of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy.

Beethoven's "Pastoral" (RCOA) is a very clean and precise performance. The Fifth of Tchaikovsky has beautiful sound, is without sentiment and shows the extreme virtuosity of the Concertgebouw Orchestra. Beethoven's 7th (Philips AY 835 124) was also well received because of its correct and intelligent reading without romanticism. Sawallisch's is a pure interpretation.

The recording of Mendelssohn-Bartholdy's "Elias" (Elijah) with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and singers Theo Adam, Elly Ameling, Annelies Burmeister and Peter Schreier, is impressive. Many of his Concertgebouw recordings were later re-released on the Philips Festivo series, still in the wonderful early Philips sound.

After his engagement with Philips had ended, Sawallisch returned eventually to EMI. Recordings were made in cooperation with VEB (Volks-Eigene Vertrieb) Deutsche Schallplatten when he was principal conductor of the Dresden State Orchestra in the former German Democratic Republic. Lateron he also recorded for various other labels too, like the Orfeo label. Although his interest encompasses all styles and many composers, his love for Wagner seems to be prominent.
Sawallisch can be seen in a number of film and TV productions of a.o. The Firebird (Stravinsky), Der Fliegende Holländer (Wagner), and Die Zauberflöte (Mozart).

There are three recordings on the Remington label, all done with the RIAS Symphony Orchestra. These recordings show Sawallisch's clear approach. In Tchaikovsky he was in the company of pianist Conrad Hansen who played the concerto Op. 23 in a sober, refined style, almost Mozartian at times, perfectly showing the structure. The Handel recording has a refreshing atmosphere.

R-199-194 Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 (Bach), Concerto Grosso No. 5 (Handel) - Wolfgang Sawallisch, conductor.

R-199-197 Piano Concerto No. 1 (Tchaikovsky) - Conrad Hansen, pianist and Wolfgang Sawallisch, conductor.

R-199-205 Variations on a Theme by Haydn (Brahms) - Wolfgang Sawallisch conducting. Coupled with Tragic Overture (Brahms), Academic Festival Overture (Brahms) with conductor Otto Matzerath.

More recordings were made with Wolfgang Sawallisch but were not released by Remington. These appeared on the Bertelsmann label and on Tefi Schallbänder in Germany:

Sawallisch Tchaikovsky Sebastian Rimsky-Korsakoff* Berlioz: Ballet Music
* Ponchielli: Danse of the Hours
* Tchaikovsky: Capricio Italien coupled with George Sebastian's Russian Easter - Bertelsmann HIFI 13 134

See Wolfgang Sawallisch's Biography at the EMI page.

Rudolf A. Bruil - March 4, 2004

The signature of Wolfgang Sawallisch is from the scrapbook of Heinrich Köhler. From 1949 till 1995 Heinrich Köhler was principal cellist of the RIAS Symphony Orchestra, later to be named Radio Symphonie Orchester and Deutsches Symphony Orchester.

On Sunday, February 24th, 2013, it was announced that Wolfgang Swallisch had poassed away on Friday, 22 February, 2013 at the respectable age of 89 years.

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