Violinist and teacher;
Born: October 27, 1919; Died: October 9, 2012.
Michel Schwalbe, who has died aged 92, was the leader – or konzertmeister, in German nomenclature – of the Berlin Philharmonic in the days when Herbert von Karajan brought his starry players on their sensational visits to the Edinburgh Festival during the 1960s and 1970s.
Schwalbe, an immensely gifted violinist and inspiration to his colleagues, had been very much Karajan's man even before he was auditioned and appointed leader in 1957.
One of the 20th century's first exponents of Vivaldi's Four Seasons and a gloriously romantic interpreter of Rimsky-Korsakov's Sheherazade, Schwalbe won instant fame in a series of dazzling performances – one of them in Edinburgh in 1961 during Lord Harewood's reign as festival director – of Richard Strauss's tone poem Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life) with its intricate solo violin part.
Yet his Berlin appointment, which he held for almost 30 years, was initially a surprise. Who would have expected a Polish Jew, whose mother and sister had both died in Treblinka, to become leader of the Philharmoniker at the behest of a former Nazi? Musicality, more than politics, was famously what mattered to Karajan. What was in it for Schwalbe was perhaps less immediately clear, but music – and a satisfactory working relationship on the highest musical level – must again have had much to do with it.
Born near Warsaw, he had studied from 1933 at the Paris Conservatoire under the great Georges Enescu and Pierre Monteux, but his promising French career was interrupted by the spread of the Second World War.
After a spell in Lyon, he escaped to Switzerland in 1942 in the back of a removal van and was recruited by Ernest Ansermet as leader of the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in Geneva. After the war, he formed his own string quartet in Zurich, became leader of the Swiss Festival Orchestra in Lucerne, and succeeded Joseph Szigeti as professor at the Geneva Conservatory.
Having played for Karajan in Lucerne, Schwalbe soon succeeded in striking a bond with him. He was, however, less sure about leaving Switzerland for Germany. Invited for an audition with the Berlin Philharmonic, he was put through the orchestra's notoriously rigorous selection process. "When I finished the final Paganini test-piece," he reported, "I turned round and saw Herr von Karajan with his arms raised heavenwards."
The decision had been made. Though Karajan was a man who found it easy to live with his past, Schwalbe never, so far as this writer knows, publicly disclosed his feelings about the man. The most he ever expressed was that he wanted to make a "personal contribution to a mutual and heartfelt understanding", and to smile quietly when the singer Christa Ludwig told him the Berlin Philharmonic still had problems playing the music of the Jewish-born Mahler, whose Song of the Earth Karajan conducted in Edinburgh in 1972 with Ludwig as soloist.
Perhaps life was made easier for Schwalbe by the fact the orchestra routinely employed three leaders on its international tours. The others during the Karajan regime were Thomas Brandis and Leon Spierer, a frequent visitor to Scotland, productively associated with the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and various chamber music clubs.
What must have been less easy was Karajan's temper, disclosed in a Salzburg Festival television film in which, with some of his old curtness, he addressed Schwalbe and other players after a rehearsal which had not gone well. "I would like," he said, "to put a rope round all of you, take you out to a field, and set you on fire." Schwalbe's reply was the soul of moderation. "But if you did that, you would not have us any more."
The words perhaps explained, in the gentlest of ways, how the relationship worked. After his retirement in 1986, Schwalbe remained in Berlin, teaching, giving masterclasses, and attending concerts by the Berlin Philharmonic until his death.
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