Victor de Sabata, conductor, composer and virtuoso pianist, was strangely under-recorded for such a celebrated musician. Any addition to his slim discography will be welcomed by his admirers.
The programme here represents the entire output of his collaboration with the finest orchestra he ever directed and provides ample demonstration of his versatility; remember, the Respighi and Kodaly was very new music at the time of this recording. Otherwise, he demonstrates his excellence in late 19th
century German repertoire. He produces recordings to vie with those by Toscanini – whose fieriness his own style in some ways resembles, but whose pace he almost invariably eschewed. He was often compared with Furtwängler.
Certainly the trenchancy of his Brahms stands comparison with Furtwängler; he was famously more flexible and inclined to indulge in rubato than Toscanini. This is evident in the leisureliness of the Andante, which is excessively “moderato” but beautifully phrased and paced. De Sabata was never afraid to take risks with slow tempi, as his recording of the Verdi Requiem testifies. His ear for orchestral balance, colour and detail was legendary, yet realistically how much of this emerges through these 1939 recordings, even after Mark Obert-Thorn’s expert restoration? There is still a lot of hiss. Most of those practised in listening to re-masterings from historical sources can to a large degree screen this out but it would be disingenuous not to mention it. The Strauss tone poem suffers most from the relatively limited sound yet the firmness of de Sabata’s rhythmic grip and the punctiliousness of his orchestral colouring emerge intact despite those sonic limitations.
The “Prelude” and “Liebestod” to “Tristan und Isolde” are perfectly paced, reminding me in weight, pacing and intensity very much of Karajan’s famous live Bayreuth 1952 recording of the whole opera. The other “Prelude” to “Aida” reminds us of his pre-eminence as an operatic conductor. It is exquisitely shaped, the strings delicate and diaphanous, textures always transparent. The Kodaly “Dances of Galánta” are more of a rarity, played here with extraordinary verve and gypsy passion. There’s some lovely solo work in the first three movements from the Berlin clarinettist. The Respighi – still the object of condescension in some circles – is given a blazing performance.
Pristine’s cover artwork is based on a striking photograph of de Sabata, whose dark, hooded eyes, aquiline nose and domed forehead are so redolent of the intelligence and intensity which informed his conducting.
And a second review ...
Given the high reputation in which he was held during his lifetime it is extraordinary that Victor de Sabata made so few studio recordings, especially before the war. He was mainly known at that time for his operatic work at La Scala and also in Vienna.
It is interesting to have the usual start and finish from Tristan und Isolde
as he conducted the whole opera at Bayreuth later in 1939. This is indeed one of the best items on these discs, full of a wonderfully controlled passion and intensity. Like everything here there is a real sense of drama and an awareness of the changing character of the music. This is also very evident in the Kodály Dances and the Respighi. Neither is normally a favourite of mine, but as played with the intensity and fervour found here it would be hard not to respond to them.
The longest work is the Brahms Symphony. Again the character of every phrase, every bar even, is carefully defined. In principle this kind of attention to detail and intensity of expression is admirable, but comparing it to, say, Weingartner’s version with the London Symphony Orchestra recorded just over a year earlier, it is possible to find a lack of naturalness and fluidity. At the same time this performance avoids any sense of the routine and projects the detailed character of the music so well. Like all of de Sabata’s recordings that I have heard it is worth hearing even if in the end you feel that much of what he does is wholly mistaken; his version of the Verdi Requiem being a prime example.
I have not heard earlier transfers of these recordings but what is presented here is clearly of its age but it takes very little time to get used to it, and it never gets in the way of appreciation of the performances. As a whole this set shows very clearly that de Sabata’s unsurpassed recording of Tosca
was no flash in the pan and at least three of the items are of superlative quality.
He was a conductor of extraordinary gifts which are very well demonstrated in this fascinating set.
Brahms symphony 4
~~ Respighi Feste Romane
~~ Strauss Death and Transfiguration