Background - The Career of Victor de Sabata
I hastened to review this disc as soon as I noticed that it was available.
I had the pleasure of reviewing for Fanfare magazine, the 1998 Testament
restoration of Victor De Sabata's fabulous recordings of Debussy's La
Mer, Jeux and Nuages and Fêtes from the Three
Nocturnes; plus Respighi's Fountains of Rome. [Testament
1108] For those who are unfamiliar with the work of this great conductor
or those who might care to be reminded, I will quote some background detail
from my review -
'Victor de Sabata had a working knowledge of all the instruments in the orchestra
and his memory for musical scores was prodigious. He began conducting in
1918 with concerts in Italy before he became conductor of the Monte Carlo
Opera where, in 1925, he prepared and conducted the premiere of Ravel's
L'Enfant et les sortilèges. He later went on to conduct in
London, Vienna, Berlin and Bayreuth. De Sabata's career came to a halt with
a cardiac crisis in 1953. Appearances were curtailed save for a few notable
exceptions including a recording of Verdi's Requiem with Schwarzkopf, Dominguez,
Di Stefano and Siepi; plus one more assignment, in Milan to conduct the Funeral
March from Beethoven's Eroica. He died on 11th December
'De Sabata hated recording, so such recordings as he did make are, as Felix
Aprahamian has said, "perhaps the more precious musical legacy of a great
and unique musician." Aprahamian knew de Sabata well, and he remembered the
maestro's working relationship with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. De
Sabata would rehearse in minute detail: "Those eyes and ears missed
the players had been made to work harder than ever before and
they knew that, without having been asked to play alone, they had been
' The Daddy of them all', said one player, but
added that the maestro looked like a cross between Julius Caesar and Satan."
To these quotes, I would add another from this album's booklet attributed
to a former leader of the LPO who remarked: "With Beecham the orchestra became
red hot. But above all, with Victor de Sabata the orchestra got white hot!"
Reviews of the Music on the CDs
Brahms Symphony No. 4 in E minor (recorded April 1939 with the Berlin
Philharmonic Orchestra) - one immediately notices how lovingly this work
is shaped by De Sabata. It flows beautifully and feels fresh and spontaneous.
It has power and authority but also great tenderness and intensity - De Sabata
using enough judiciously placed portamento and rubato to heighten the effect
of the music. Some might quibble at some muddy rhythmic configurations, the
odd rare bit of suspect intonation and, for some, uncomfortably fast tempi
in the scherzo (but not me I found the effect exhilarating).) The overall
effect, however, is glorious.
Wagner - Tristan und Isolde Prelude to Act I and Liebestod (recorded
in April 1939 with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra). De Sabata's outpouring
of white-hot emotion in this flaming, thrillingly-paced reading will set
you tingling. De Sabata once talked about the Philharmonia Orchestra in these
terms: "Your orchestra is the most wonderful English virgin. All she needs
to achieve ultimate perfection is to be raped by a hot-blooded Italian. I
will do that for you!" In this fervid, voluptuous Lieberstod, he does
Wagner - Tristan und Isolde - excerpts from a La Scala, Milan performance
(recorded live on 11th December 1930). Despite severe background
noise, distortion and audience coughing, one senses an exceptional performance
unravelling here. The end of the love duet of Scene II, Act II, from what
we can distinguish is a deeply-felt experience. The other fragments indicate
the remarkable, thrilling performances that De Sabata coaxed from his artists:
Guiseppina Cobelli (Isolde), Renato Zanelli (Tristan) and Antonio Righetti
(King Mark). CD2
Richard Strauss - Tod und Verklärung (with The Berlin Philharmonic
Orchestra; recorded April 1939). This is another performance to treasure.
It is a pity that the quiet early pages are spoilt by excessive surface
cracklings but as the music picks up tempi and dramatic intensity, one soon
forgets this distraction. The violence and emotional turbulence Strauss's
hero encounters through his life's journey are fierily portrayed. The music
rages and De Sabata whips up white heat excitement. His romantic interludes
are tender and, in their climaxes, sensuous and hotly passionate. The soft
strokes of the gong, signifying the death of the hero, banishes all worldly
preoccupations and Strauss takes us, in his imagination, into the hereafter.
De Sabata treads with appropriate awe and trepidation onto this higher plane.
His transfiguration develops into a most glorious heavenly vision.
Ottorino Respighi - Feste Romane (with The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra;
recorded April 1939). The Testament recording of Sabata's reading of Respighi's
Fountains of Rome was revelatory and his view of Respighi's Roman Festivals
is equally imaginative and thoughtful. The opening fanfares of 'Circenses'
are taken at surprisingly fast speeds (some may feel they are disconcertingly
so) but De Sabata is cleverly creating an atmosphere of mounting excitement
and hysteria. The Ancient Romans are eager for blood and gore as the Christians
are thrown to the beasts. The ensuing savagery and carnage is vividly realised.
The second movement Il giubileo demonstrates De Sabata's excellent sense
of control and pacing. This is a remarkable study in crescendo. The pilgrims
are nearing Rome, their anticipation rising with their every step. De Sabata
is right there with them, understanding their eagerness, recognising their
piety and rejoicing with them as they see the Eternal City spread out before
them - bells tolling out in greeting. De Sabata's L'Ottobrata is a joyful
celebration indeed, crisp yet magically romantic with its echoing hunting
calls and appealing mandolin melody. Unlike so many interpreters De Sabata
knows that the festival of 'La Befana' is primarily for the children (in
Italian children's lore, a witch rewards good children and punishes the bad;
and children receive presents during La Befana in the Piazza Navonna in Rome
on Twelfth Night). And so De Sabata's opening suggests a frightening witch
and children's games and frolics, before the music opens out to embrace all
the excitements of the fairground and the riotous jubilation of Roman citizens
at leisure - including that drunk. This has to be one of tne best ever
interpretations of this often recorded work.
Zoltan KODÁLY - Dances from Galanta (The Berlin Philharmonic
Orchestra; recorded in April 1939). This is another tremendously exciting
and invigorating reading. De Sabata catches all the Slavic nuances and turns
of phrase. He elicits virtuoso performances from all sections of the Berlin
orchestra. A magnificent conclusion to a wonderful concert.
An album to treasure