Top Ear

Obituaries: Sawallisch and Cliburn


Yet two more respected musicians have died recently:  the conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch and the pianist Van Cliburn.  Both of them have contributed significantly to the world of classical music and their absence is a painful loss.

Wolfgang Sawallisch died at his home in Grassau, Germany on 22 February.  He was 89.  He assumed positions with various orchestras:  the most fruitful tenures being the principal conductor of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra from 1960 to 1970, and music director of the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande from 1970 to 1980.  From 1993 to 2003 he was music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and held the title of its Conductor Laureate until his death.  Sawallisch was a conductor of the German tradition, and his two cycles of Schumann symphonies, with the Staatskapelle Dresden and Philadelphia Orchestra, remain classics.  He was also remembered for his Strauss and Wagner operas (he did a Ring Cycle with the Bayerischer Staatsoper).

He was also an accompanist for lieders and accompanied Thomas Hampson in Schubert’s Winterreise.  He also accompanied Barbara Hendricks in a number of Strauss lieder.  There is an interesting story of Sawallisch’s appearance as a pianist:  on 11 February 1994 in Philadelphia, a snow storm prevented most members of the Philadelphia Orchestra from arriving at the Academy of Music to give an all-Wagner concert.  Sawallisch substituted for the orchestra at the eleventh hour and gave a piano recital instead, which turned out to be one of his most celebrated live concert appearances as a pianist.

American pianist Van Cliburn died aged 78 at his home in Fort Worth, Texas.  In 1958 he was the first American to win the International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition, and his performance at the competition final of Tchaikovsky’s First Concerto and Rachmaninov’s Third earned him a standing ovation that lasted over eight minutes.  After his victory in Russia, he was honored in New York City by a ticker-tape parade, the only individual classical musician conferred with this honor (the only other instance I can think of was Solti and his Chicago Symphony musicians at the end of an European tour in 1971).  His recording of Tchaikovsky’s First with Kirill Kondrashin was the first classical album ever to reach sales of over a million copies.

Van Cliburn had a big technique for sure, but he was far from the firebrand type of virtuoso such as Argerich.  His golden, burnished tone and sensitive, relaxed pianism coupled with lyric ingenuity made him sound like a “thinking” virtuoso without sounding “cerebral” a la Brendel or Hamelin.  His repertoire was restricted to the most commonly played pieces; however, he often shone a new light on those old warhorses, which made his performances a very special listen.

He was diagnosed with advanced bone cancer in 2012 and succumbed to his illness on 27th February.


Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

9 thoughts on “Obituaries: Sawallisch and Cliburn

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