He was born in Munich on 26 August 1923. Success came immediately, and he become the youngest conductor to perform at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus with Tristan und Isolde in 1957.
For a decade he was the Principal Conductor of the Vienna Symphony until 1970. Then from 1971 to 1992 Sawallisch was Music Director of the Bavarian State Opera, after which he became Music Director of the Philadelphia Orchestra until 2003.
On the eve of his farewell concert as director of the Philadelphia Orchestra the New York Times wrote:
Mr. Sawallisch is a musician from tip to toe. He is blessed with an abundance of what musicians call ”musicality” or ”musicianship.” This is far from a tautology; not all musicians have a lot of musicality, and its possession is always a matter of degrees. Musicality can transcend sheer musical technique and to some extent even interpretive skills. It somehow communicates directly to a listener (and watcher) no matter how foreign the idiom is to one’s own experience or how diverse its reach. Ravi Shankar is one example, Bobby McFerrin another.
Musicality is the universal language that music is not. And in Mr. Sawallisch’s case, it comes through in every performance, whether at the piano or on the podium.
Ill health led to his retirement in 2006.
Sawallisch was well known as interpreter Richard Strauss’s works, and as an accompanist worked with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Margaret Price in this repertoire. He recorded Franz Schubert’s Winterreise and Robert Schumann’s Liederkreis with Thomas Hampson.
His other recordings include widely praised interpretations of Strauss’s Capriccio, the four symphonies of Robert Schumann, Mozart’s The Magic Flute in 1973 with Peter Schreier, Walter Berry, Edda Moser, Anneliese Rothenberger, and Kurt Moll.
He was given the Toscanini Gold Baton in recognition of his 35-year association with La Scala in Milan. His honorary degrees include doctorates from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Westminster Choir College of Rider University, and Villanova University. He is a recipient of the Pennsylvania Governor’s Distinguished Artist Award, as well as the Avatar Award for Artistic Excellence, created by the Arts and Business Council of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce.
Wikipedia list his other recordings as follows:
- Ludwig van Beethoven’s nine symphonies with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam
- Johannes Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
- Johannes Brahms’s four symphonies with the London Philharmonic Orchestra
- Johannes Brahms’s four symphonies with the Wiener Symphoniker
- Anton Bruckner’s Symphonies 1, 4, 5, 6 & 9
- Antonín Dvořák’s Requiem, and Stabat Mater, both with the Czech Philharmonic; Symphonies Nos. 7–9 and Cello Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra
- Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 2 with the Berlin Philharmonic and Düsseldorf Chorus
- Franz Schubert’s 9 Symphonies with Staatskapelle Dresden; Sacred Choral Works with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
- Richard Strauss’s Intermezzo, Elektra, Friedenstag and Die Frau ohne Schatten, Arabella with the Bavarian State Opera
- Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben, Symphonia domestica, and Also sprach Zarathustra with The Philadelphia Orchestra
- Richard Strauss’s Horn Concertos, with Dennis Brain and the Philharmonia Orchestra
- Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth (live recording, Salzburg Festival)
- Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Die Feen with the Bavarian State Opera; The Flying Dutchman (Bayreuth Festival and Bavarian State Orchestra, the latter filmed) and Lohengrin (Bayreuth Festival)
- Richard Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with Marjana Lipovsek and The Philadelphia Orchestra