Sawallisch was born in Munich in 1923. Attending a
performance of Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel at the age of
11 determined him on a life of music-making. He served in the Wehrmacht
1942-46 and was taken prisoner in Italy. His progress as music director
took him from Augsburg to Salzburg, Aachen, Wiesbaden, Köln, Vienna
(with the Symphony not the Phil) and Brahms' 'own' Hamburg with much
else in between. He has also established a strong connection with the
Sawallisch conducts without score believing that the
physical distraction of podium page-turning detracts from the music.
As he said, in interview, a conductor should be 'so conversant with
the music .. that he has the melody, structure and metre in his head.'
He is a doughty pianist as his acclaimed visit to London
in 1957 as accompanist to Elizabeth Schwarzkopf showed. He returned
in 1958 to conduct the very same LPO he conducts on this set (the first
five CDs). Reticent and unflamboyant he has never relished or courted
the autocratic dazzle and glamour of figures such as Bernstein, Karajan
and Stokowski. His virtues are bound up with his fidelity to the score.
This must not be mistaken for lack of vigour or spark. His reflexes
are good and there is electricity in his control of pacing. More than
many he also impresses with his careful attention to harmony as the
wind playing at the start of the finales of the First and Second Symphonies
pays warming testimony.
The Third (a particular favourite) is somewhat
relaxed and I did not find it as strong as I was hoping especially in
the first movement. The third and fourth movements are fluent and gracious.
Overall, deliberation is too much in the ascendant. This does not dislodge
my reference version - Walter and the CBS Symphony though the EMI sound
is much more civilised.
The snappier episodes in the Haydn Variations are
rattled along with virility and at a speed that prompts surprising parallel-drawing
with Mendelssohn and even Berlioz. The attack at the start of the Tragic
Overture is gripping and Sawallisch brings out the same darker
shadows we also experience in Dvorak's Seventh Symphony (he has recorded
the later Dvoraks for Philips). At other points, as in the great yelping
cry of the violins in the peroration to the finale of the First Symphony,
Sawallisch turns away from piercing intensity.
The brass are made very pleasingly 'present' by the
engineering work of Mark Vigars and John Fraser even when not centre-stage
and this facet can be heard again in the finale of the Third Symphony
which grasps splendour more than once. It is also immanent in the Fourth
which scorches along exactly as it should and which in the finale is
brassily Gothic - autumnally spacious without dawdling.
I always come to the Double Concerto with hopes
high. It is a work, even more than the Second Concerto and the Third
Symphony, in which Brahms achieved that perfect balance between form
and melody. The great recordings for me include the Rose, Stern, Ormandy
(Sony) and Rostropovich, Oistrakh (EMI) ... in that order. The Brahms
and Dvorak friendship, rather like that between Holst and Vaughan Williams,
is well documented. In the Zimmermann, Schiff, Sawallisch version of
the Double Concerto it is as if we are hearing the concerto styled by
Dvorak. This may have something to do with Zimmermann's tone which here
is sweet and slender rather than ripely romantic: more Suk than Oistrakh.
Schiff, who I tend to think of more in the Shostakovich realm, is similarly
elegant rather than humidly warm. In the finale both players develop
a more resinous sound and the featherdown mercurial spirit of Zimmermann
is well to the fore and provocatively so. Sawallisch makes this a three-way
dialogue and reserves his most vehement impetuosity for the last five
To fill out the last disc comes the Horn Trio,
written in the Black Forest the year after his mother's death. It has
an elegiac feel and Neunecker's horn casts an aureate halo around the
proceedings. Zimmermann seems more tremulous in this work than in the
other two in which he appears in this set. All doubts are dispelled
in the jäger finale. Sawallisch has no choice in this context but
to be a more demonstrative partner than is his inclination as conductor.
You probably will not be buying this set for the Horn Trio but you are
unlikely to be disappointed by it.
The sixth disc has Mozart's Third Violin Concerto K216
in a most tender performance with a politically incorrect 'big band'
sound but with balances favouring the wind principals. This is lovingly
done and Zimmermann's shapely tone is apt to this music.
The Brahms Violin Concerto again has its Dvorakian
echoes. This is is a lively and beefy interpretation in the grand mainstream.
If you prize elegance, dexterity and flightiness in the solo part I
can recommend this strongly though there are moments when Zimmermann's
more intimate qualities are at odds with Sawallisch's thumpingly spirited
The two piano concertos are present in performances
by Stephen Kovacevich. Struggles, tragedy, serenity and hard-won triumphs
must have been foremost in the minds of conductor and soloist in the
First Concerto. While I would not rate this as incandescent it
in no way plays down the indomitable courage of the piece. The orchestra
is given a most pleasing muscular perspective. Time after time the brass
parts rear up to address the listener such that they were perhaps emphasised
in the control desk balance. Kovacevich, a most fastidious pianist,
is never prissy. He seems comfortably in sympathy with Sawallisch throughout.
This is a very fine version.
I would have liked their Second Concerto even
more had the protagonists imported the gruff confrontation we find in
the First. It is commanding and confident, but where we should reel
with the tension of it all this lacks that extra turn and twist of the
hawser. I would liken this to the approach they adopt in the Third Symphony.
It is as if someone had called into the studio 'lighten up' ... and
they did. If you are looking for a no-holds-barred monumental approach
then Sony's Serkin version on Essential Classics is for you. It is however
nowhere near as beautifully recorded as for these London sessions. Kovacevich
shows some superb crystalline passage work in the finale - try 2.20
onwards. It is winningly delightful but there is no substitute for the
epic and momentous galvanic charge that flashes and quakes through the
Ann Murray has that deepened oaken tone that reminds
me of Ferrier. Yet she can be yieldingly tender as well - as at 1.43
in Gestillte Sehsucht (Op. 91 No. 1) and throughout Klage
from Op. 105. She is adroitly partnered by Kovacevich and by the slender-toned
viola of Imai in Op. 91
The violin concertos, Double Concerto and Horn Trio
were made by EMI Electrola in Germany.
I am not sure what has happened to these recordings
for they appear to have had little of a life in the catalogue. That
they are here now is just. Perhaps their shelf life will now be as long
as the same conductor's hardly ever out of the catalogue EMI set
of Schumann symphonies with the Dresden Staatskapelle.
For most of us, Sawallisch comes out of this set with
honours higher than those in which we held him before we began this