The Profil label has rushed out this 8 CD box set to commemorate the death of conductor and pianist Wolfgang Sawallisch who died on 22 February 2013 aged eighty-nine. The set spans 43 years of his long and distinguished career with the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks but includes examples of the great man’s other area of prowess, playing piano in a chamber recital. Renowned for his interpretations of Bruckner, Wagner and Richard Strauss, Sawallisch conducted extensively with the world famous Berliner Philharmoniker and held posts at the Bayreuth Festival, Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Hamburg State Philharmonic, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande and the Philadelphia Orchestra in America. In Britain Sawallisch
enjoyed a long association with the Philharmonia in London. For more than three decades Sawallisch also conducted annually with the NHK Symphony Orchestra in Tokyo.
Munich-born and bred, Sawallisch studied at the city’s Wittelsbacher-Gymnasium and the Hochschule für Musik. He is best known for his long association in Munich with the Bayerischen Staatsoper and also the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks that feature on all but one of the eight Profil discs. Sawallisch loved the Bavarian capital of Munich and there conducted most of the major Richard Strauss operas. It seems his lifetime total was around 1,200 opera performances in Munich, which included 32 complete Wagner Ring cycles. I understand that the only major work by Richard Strauss that he didn’t conducted was
Salome. For much of his life Sawallisch lived on his country estate at Grassau, a region of the Bavarian Alps that he cherished so much; he also died there. During his extremely long and distinguished career Sawallisch made a large number of recordings. Sawallisch’s remarkable collection of Schubert’s
Sacred Choral Works recorded with the Chor und Symphonieorchester des Bayerische Rundfunks for EMI is cherishable. His impressive list of soloists includes: Peter Schreier (tenor); Robert Tear (tenor); Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone); Helen Donath (soprano); Lucia Popp (soprano) and Brigitte Fassbaender (mezzo). This outstandingly performed and recorded set of 35 Schubert sacred scores was made in 1977 and 1979/83 at the Herkulessaal, Munich and can be found in a 7 disc box set on EMI Classics 5 86011 2.
For the present commemorative release the Munich based Profil label has selected seven pieces that go some way to display the diversity of works that Sawallisch conducted. His approach is widely regarded as representing the best traditions of the Austro/German school. The booklet notes show the recording venues and performance dates but not the origin of the recordings. So I am not able to report which are new releases and which are reissues. In addition the set is let down by lack of texts and English translations.
On the first disc Sawallisch is represented by two Mozart symphonies a composer who was very close to the heart of the Bavarian conductor - especially the operas. An impressive Mozartian Sawallisch’s wonderful 1972 studio recording of Mozart’s
Die Zauberflöte with the Chor und Orchester der Bayerischen Staatsoper should be mentioned. The fine cast of soloists includes Kurt Moll (Sarastro), Peter Schreier (Tamino), Edda Moser (Queen of the Night), Anneliese Rothenberger (Pamina), Walter Berry (Papageno) and Olivera Miljakovic (Papagena). Recorded at the Bürgerbräu, Munich I have this Sawallisch double on Classics for Pleasure 3932662.
Sawallisch made the present recordings of the Mozart
Jupiter in 1998 with the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks in front of a live audience in Munich for Bayerischer Rundfunk. The first work is the
Haffner, composed in 1782 just prior to Mozart’s wedding to Constanze Weber. It started out as a serenade commissioned for the ennoblement of Sigmund Haffner, the mayor of Salzburg. Mozart later reworked it into the familiar
Symphony that was introduced in 1783 at the Vienna Burgtheater. The second work is the magnificent Jupiter. Composed in 1788 it is Mozart’s final symphony and also takes the longest to perform. It seems that impresario Salomon was responsible for giving the symphony its evocative nickname
Jupiter - as always a valuable marketing tool for the publishers. Last May at the Dresden Semper Opera I reported on a concert with Daniel Barenboim conducting the Wiener Philharmoniker in the last three Mozart symphonies. It might have been ‘big-band’ Mozart but it was quite stunningly played with everything feeling fresh and newly minted under Barenboim’s direction. It was a truly special concert that will live long in the memory.
Sawallisch’s affectionate Mozart interpretations immediately come across as buoyant and spirited in the
Allegros and gentle, if rather passive in the
Andante movements. Although Sawallisch could have taken a more exhilarating and muscular approach the playing of the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks is sparklingly fresh. Most of all I was struck by the well sprung rhythms, the finely judged changes of weight and tempi and the elegance of the beautiful playing. The sound quality of this 1998 live recording was pleasing and reveals some really fine detail. The enthusiastic audience applause has been left in.
In addition to these excellent Sawallisch recordings I remain greatly impressed by the evergreen Deutsche Grammophon accounts from the Berliner Philharmoniker under Karl Böhm. Recorded in 1959 and 1962 at the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin/Dahlem, by today’s standard these performances would be classed as ‘big-band’ Mozart. They are none the worse for that. Böhm’s accounts wear their age lightly, remaining full of vitality and character as well as containing attractively elegant playing. I have the release on a re-mastered double disc Deutsche Grammophon ‘The Originals’ 447 416-2 (Symphonies 36, 38, 39, 40).
Here we have two fine examples of Sawallisch the chamber music player. A talented pianist, Sawallisch in the first of these Schubert performances
Die Forelle (
The Trout) is joined by Jan Pospichal (violin); Wolfgang Klos (viola), Wilfried Rehm (cello) and Ernst Weissensteiner (double bass). The recording was made in 1997 at the Classic Sound Austria recording studio in Vienna. The enduring popularity of this glorious work is well deserved. The score was commenced in the summer of 1819 maybe as a commission by Sylvester Paumgartner, a wealthy patron who also played the cello. Evidently it was Paumgartner who suggested it might include a theme and set of variations on Schubert’s own lied
Die Forelle D.550 (1817) hence the descriptive title - which is a publisher’s dream. The provenance of the
Notturno D.897 for piano trio is uncertain. Probably composed in 1825 it was published posthumously in 1846. Many Schubert scholars believe the
Notturno to be a discarded
Adagio movement for his
Piano Trio in B-flat Major, D.898. It is likely that the title was created at the behest of a publisher.
Sawallisch and his fellow chamber musicians are on splendid form conveying their collective pleasure in delightful music-making. This is persuasive version of the
Trout Quintet and it just sparkles with vibrancy. The speeds are judiciously judged and there’s affectionate phrasing and refined textures. Considerable sensitivity is offered in the
Notturno yet there is no sense of the players handling the music like fragile Meissen porcelain. The recording engineers have provided splendid sonics with a particularly well judged balance between piano and strings.
While the Sawallisch is splendid my favourite account of the
Trout Quintet remains the evergreen played by Clifford Curzon and the Wiener Philharmonisches Streichquartett. Curzon and his Vienna string players are on their finest form offering highly polished playing, captivating expressive eloquence and tremendous lyricism. Recorded in 1957 at the Sofiensaal, Vienna, the analogue sound has been successfully re-mastered on the Decca ‘The Classic Sound’ series (c/w Clifford Curzon, members of the Wiener Oktett: Dvorák
Piano Quintet, Op. 81).
CDs 3 and 4
In 1801 Haydn was prompted to write his oratorio
Die Jahreszeiten (
The Seasons) by the great success of his previous oratorio
Die Schöpfung (
The Creation) from 1798. Cast in four parts that correspond to the four seasons of the year the text has a rather secular quality creating an idealized vision of nature and country life. I have treasured this greatly underrated oratorio since attending a stunning performance in 2009 at the Berlin Philharmonie given by Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker and the Rundfunkchor Berlin. Rattle’s striking trio of soloists was John Mark Ainsley (Lukas), Thomas Quasthoff (Simon) and Christiane Oelze (Hanne).
This Sawallisch performance was recorded in the summer of 1994 at the Marienmünster at Dießen am Ammersee. I was immediately struck by the high quality of the Bavarian orchestra whose compelling playing spells refinement and enthusiasm. The Bavarian choir is on superb form too. They display an especially fine quality of tone and unison. Typically Sawallisch has chosen his soloists well. Tenor Robert Gambill as Lukas is in quite wonderful voice, fresh and bright and very expressive with exceptional vocal clarity. A fine example of Gambill moving adroitly through his range is his cavatina
Dem Druck erlieget die Natur and the aria
Hier steht der Wandrer nun. Sturdy bass-baritone Alfred Muff as Simon impresses with his smooth, rich timbre and control especially in his arias
Der muntre Hirt and
Erblikke hier, betörter Mensch. As Hanne, Ruth Ziesak has never sounded in better form. Her delightfully fluid and creamy tone is gratifying and appealing and this confirmed by her aria
Welche Labung für die Sinne. How effortlessly she slides gloriously through her range in her cavatina
Licht und Leben sind geschwächet. I greatly enjoyed the trio
Sie steigt hereof, die Sonne with the voices blending perfectly with the choir and orchestra. Sawallisch is in complete control, demonstrating his innate feeling for the score. Disappointing that there are no texts and English translation. Complete with crystal clear and well balanced sound this is the most enjoyable recording of
Die Jahreszeiten (
The Seasons) I have heard. I’m sure it will become a cornerstone of my Haydn collection.
CDs 5 and 6
One of the pinnacles of Mendelssohn’s output,
Elijah is probably the most famous of all nineteenth century oratorios. This sacred masterpiece is Mendelssohn’s second great oratorio and was completed just a year before his untimely death in 1847. It was Mendelssohn himself, using an English translation of the text, who conducted the première to great acclaim in 1846 at the Birmingham Town Hall in England. In 2001 Sawallisch recorded
Elijah with the Chor und Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks live from the Herkulessaal at Munich. I reviewed this recording in 2011. This is highly pleasing and can compete with the best around. Directing effortlessly managed singing of towering veneration Sawallisch assuredly obtains dramatic playing.
My highlights include No.2
Herr, höre unser Gebet! and the beseeching duet
Zion streckt ihre Hände aus between lyric soprano Andrea Rost and Marjana Lipovsek in the alto role. Also of note is No.21
Höre, Israel, höre des Herren Stimme!, a substantial and brilliant soprano aria. There’s magnificent reverential singing from Andrea Rost and her aria is a highlight. Throughout I was struck by Rost’s pleasingly bright tone, impressive projection and diction. Another high point is the glorious trio of Angels comprising sopranos Rost and Letizia Scherrer and alto Lipovsek in No.28
Hebe deine Augen auf zu den Bergen. Add to this the impressively long lyrical line of bass soloist Michael Volle in No.37
Ja es sollen wohl Berge weichen. The sound quality is to a high standard revealing plenty of detail. Slowly burning applause at the score’s conclusion serves to enhance the atmosphere of the occasion. Asgain it’s a pity that we are not given texts and English translation.
CDs 7 and 8
The final work is Carl Orff’s rarely performed stage work
Antigonae. It was introduced in 1949 conducted by Ferenc Fricsay at the Felsenreitschule, Salzburg. Orff described
Antigonae as a ‘musical setting’ of the Greek tragedy by Sophocles although in effect it serves as an opera. Here Orff uses Friedrich Hölderlin’s German translation virtually verbatim of the Classical Greek play by Sophocles. The highly unconventional orchestration comprises of a rank of 9 double basses, 4 harps, 6 flutes (doubling as piccolos), 6 oboes (3 doubling as cor anglais), 6 muted trumpets, 4 harps, 6 pianos each with 2 players with a large battery of percussion requiring 10/15 players. The score provides considerable challenges for the performers. Orff employs
Singstimmen - a sort of half way house between speaking and singing. American soprano Astrid Varnay, who was then based in Munich, played Eurydice in
Antigonae in the opening performance of the 1975 Munich Festival given to commemorate Orff’s 80th birthday. In her autobiography
55 Years in 5 Acts Varnay remarked on the technical difficulty of this rewarding role and its demand for a high tessitura.
This is a complete recording of
Antigonae from Sawallisch of the 1958 radio broadcast from the Herkulessaal, Munich. It has previously been released only in part. Sawallisch has gathered together a team of excellent soloists led by legendary German mezzo-soprano Martha Mödl in the title role. Contralto Lilian Benningsen played Eurydice and Marianne Radev (Ismene); William Dooley (Chorführer); Carlos Alexander (Kreon); Paul Kuen (Wächter); Fritz Uhl (Hämon); Josef Traxel (Tiresias); Kurt Bohme (Bote). Although the music does not greatly appeal to me on disc I would love the opportunity to hear it live. I cannot help but congratulate the excellent singers for giving such a notable performance. Of the main characters the great Martha Mödl who was probably in her prime is inspiring as Antigonae and is in splendid mature voice with an expressive sense of line and dark timbre. With plenty of vocal heft she is highly dramatic in
Jetzt aber komm'ich, eben,
O Grab! O Brautbett! from act 3. Marvellously in tune and comfortable in her high register I am struck by Mödl’s great vocal control. She takes all the hurdles with ease in this challenging writing
. As Eurydice Lilian Benningsen is compelling in the fourth act
O all ihr Bürger! eine Rede merkt' ich and displays flexibility and impressive vocal control with especially fine diction. In his third act aria
Als wie von Gott, himmlisch kommt die Besinnung Fritz Uhl is comfortable as Hämon and his bright smooth tenor, is both expressively fluid and finely controlled. Carlos Alexander as Kreon has a rich and smooth baritone that is steady and enjoys striking diction. Kurt Bohme as Bote is dark and rich voiced with agreeably clear enunciation. William Dooley as Chorführer, Josef Traxel as Tiresias and Paul Kuen as Ein Wächter offers first-rate support. From such a renowned recording venue as the Herkulessaal I found the sound quality most satisfactory: belying its 55 years.
Sawallisch’s memory is marvellously served by this 8 disc set; a great credit to Profil. Although these versions would not always be my first choice all, without exception, are beautifully played and recorded. Included in the timings is audience applause where applicable. The only thing that rather let the side down was the lack of texts and translations.
-- Michael Cookson, MusicWeb International