Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Music Webmaster
Len Mullenger:

: Symphony No. 4 in E minor
Wagner: Excerpts from Tristan und Isolde
Richard Strauss: Tod und Verklärung
Respighi: Feste Romane
Dances from Galanta

The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and Orchestra of La Scala Milan
Pearl GEMMCD0054CDs [137:10]




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 SBT 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 1967.

'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 nothing…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 individually assessed…' 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 just that!

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


Ian Lace


Ian Lace

Reviews carry sales links
but you can also purchase


Return to Index