By a sad coincidence I had just been listening to Michel Schwalbé’s distinctive and warm-hearted recording of Bach’s Double Violin Concerto with Christian Ferras and the Berlin Philharmonic under Herbert von Karajan (soon available as part of ‘L’Art de Christian Ferras’ from Discovery Records, 480 6655) when I learned of Schwalbé’s death in Berlin on October 9, shortly before his 93rd birthday. He was born in Poland in 1919, received his first violin lessons at the age of eight from Maurycy Frenkel in Warsaw and from 1933 studied at the Paris Conservatoire with Georges Enescu, Jules Boucherit and Pierre Monteux.
The fact that in 1957 Karajan offered him the position of concertmaster at the Berlin Philharmonic (a post that as a Polish-born Jew Schwalbé was initially wary of accepting) must at the time have seemed like a much-valued gesture of reconciliation, especially when considering Karajan’s respected position within Nazi Germany. But this gifted Enescu pupil, quartet leader and one-time concertmaster of Ernest Ansermet’s Suisse Romande Orchestra was to prove a great credit to the Orchestra, and was also extremely adept at solo work. His various recordings include versions of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons and Strauss’s tone poem Ein Heldenleben under Karajan (one of the best versions of Strauss’s taxing fiddle solo ever) and he remained in situ at the BPO until 1986.
Schwalbé taught as a professor at the Academy of Music Hanns Eisler in Berlin and after his retirement was much in demand as a jury member, teacher and advisor to young violinists. He was a model concertmaster, technically assured, tonally alluring and yet, appropriately and effectively, always a first among equals.