Born: August 26, 1923; Died: February 22, 2013.

Wolfgang Sawallisch, who has died aged 89, was one of Igor Markevitch's prized pupils at the Salzburg Mozarteum in the same year (1950) as Sir Alexander Gibson studied there, although their operatic careers thereafter went different ways – Gibson's to the musical directorship of Sadler's Wells and eventually Scottish Opera, and Sawallisch's to the Aachen, Wiesbaden and Cologne opera companies before reaching the heights of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich where, from 1971 until 1993, he excelled in the music of Richard Strauss.

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If Sawallisch's career could thus be hailed as thoroughly German, Gibson's was equally British at a time when few other British conductors were so profoundly operatic in outlook. With Markevitch as their mentor – there is a picture of them standing side by side, batons raised but otherwise displaying no obvious confidence in their abilities, in front of the great Stravinskian's watchful eyes – neither of them sought international stardom. Yet what the German soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf said of Sawallisch – "he wants to make music untrammelled, it's as if you are in private" – could have applied equally to Gibson.

Born in Munich, the German conductor trained first as a pianist, seeming otherwise something of a slow developer, preferring to perform as a member of the duo Seitz/Sawallisch, with which – with Gerhard Seitz as violinist – he made what was reputedly his earliest British appearance at one of Tertia Liebenthal's lunchtime concerts at the National Gallery in Edinburgh. The quality of his playing stood out. How could he possibly, it was asked, want to conduct an orchestra?

But his replies to such questions were invariably ambiguous. Whatever his aims at the time, they had been interrupted by the Second World War, in which he had served innocuously as a radio operator in France and Italy. Captured by the Allies, he progressed after his release through various minor (but traditionally German) appointments as an operatic repetiteur but felt too inexperienced to accept the major dates in New York and elsewhere which were offered to him.

In the end Vienna won him as conductor of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, with the artistic directorship of the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in Geneva as follow-up. But although these orchestral appointments, plus a decade with the Philadelphia Orchestra in America, were important to him, it was in opera, though he never confessed as much, that his heart surely lay.

Though he successfully appeared in the Usher Hall at the Edinburgh Festival in the 1950s, his decision to turn down an invitation from Herbert von Karajan to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic was deemed not to be a good career move. But it was typical of him. Karajan never offered him another invitation. Even Munich in the end began to disturb his spirit of musical diplomacy, and he made his appointment to the Philadelphia Orchestra seem more of an escape than a personal triumph.

He remained in many ways a quiet man of music, declaring that the written note mattered more than the art of interpretation. His early preference for the piano, and its role in chamber music, remained with him to the end.

His wife Mechthild died in 1998 and her Requiem Mass was taken by Cardinal Ratzinger, an old friend who later became Pope Benedict XVI. Her son from an earlier marriage, whom the conductor legally adopted, died in January.