De Sabata CD Set Proves Conductor Giant Of His Time

Victor de Sabata with Maria Callas and Walter Legge during the 1953 Tosca recording sessions (Photo: La Scala Archive)

Victor de Sabata: Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon and Decca. Brahms: Symphony No. 4.* Richard Strauss: Death and Transfiguration.* Sibelius: En Saga** and Valse Triste.** Verdi: Aida: Prelude.* Wagner: Tristan und Isolde: Prelude and “Liebestod.”* Die Walküre: “The Ride of the Valkyries”.** Kodaly: Dances of Galanta.* Respighi: Feste Romane.* Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 (Eroica).** Berlioz: Roman Carnival Overture.** Mozart: Requiem.*** Berlin Philharmonic.* London Philharmonic.** Pia Tassinari, soprano, Ebe Stignani, mezzo-soprano, Ferruccio Tagliavini, tenor, Italo Tajo, bass, RAI Chorus, and Orchestra. *** Deutsche Grammophon 479 8196 (4 CDs). Total Time: 269:20.

By Paul E. Robinson

DIGITAL REVIEW – On almost everyone’s list of the greatest classical recordings of all time is the 1953 set (EMI 7243 5 62890 2) of Puccini’s Tosca starring Maria Callas, Giuseppe di Stefano, and Tito Gobbi. Not the least of the glories of this legendary performance is the authoritative conducting of Italian maestro Victor de Sabata.

De Sabata, truly one of the podium giants of his era, was at the height of his powers when World War II put his international career on hold. Then, after the war, as he resumed work, he suffered a devastating heart attack that sent him into premature retirement at 62.

This new boxed set from DG restores many of de Sabata’s most important commercial recordings to the catalogue, and, hopefully, will make his name familiar to a new generation of music-lovers.

Although he was born in Trieste, home base for Victor de Sabata for most of his life was Milan, where he studied at the Giuseppe Verdi Conservatory and graduated in composition, violin, and piano. Well into his later years, he could still play virtuoso works such as Ravel’s Tzigane on the violin and Scarbo on the piano. De Sabata conducted the La Scala Orchestra for the first time in 1920 and succeeded Toscanini as principal conductor of the La Scala Opera House in 1930. He held that post for more than 20 years.

De Sabata’s first recordings, mostly for Parlophone, many of which have been remastered and reissued on CD since then by Pearl, Naxos, and other labels, are from 1930, but his most important pre-war recordings, all of which are included in this new boxed set, were made for Polydor with the Berlin Philharmonic in April, 1939.

Among these Polydor recordings is a fine Brahms Fourth Symphony with glorious string playing and the fastest Scherzo movement you are ever likely to hear, and a dramatic, exciting performance of Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration, with an especially impressive reading of the opening bars. De Sabata manages to make virtually every note in this passage meaningful and compelling by means of expressive phrasing and careful voicing of each chord. Great conducting. Unfortunately, in all these 1939 recordings, the timpani is nearly inaudible, rendering the ending of the first movement of the Brahms almost comical and leaving the climaxes in the Strauss sorely lacking in power. For those who are interested, there does exist a live performance of Death and Transfiguration from 1953 with de Sabata and the Vienna Philharmonic – a performance given just days before the legendary Tosca performance was recorded in Milan – that offers a far more vivid realization of de Sabata’s interpretation.

Herbert von Karajan, Victor de Sabata, Guido Cantelli at La Scala in 1952.

A primary characteristic of virtually all great conductors is intensity, and de Sabata could galvanize an orchestra like no one else. A prime example from these 1939 sessions with the Berlin Philharmonic is a hair-raising performance of Kodaly’s Dances of Galanta, in which the rubato in the slow sections is mesmerizing and authoritative, and the faster sections go like the wind, with astonishing precision.

After the war, in May 1946, de Sabata was hired by Decca to record a number of works with the London Philharmonic (LPO). Although the sound quality on these is not much better than that on the 1939 recordings – the timpani is still not much more than a rumble in the distance – and the LPO is no match for the Berlin Philharmonic, they do contain moments of inspired music-making.

When it came to Beethoven, de Sabata was very much in the Toscanini rather than the Furtwängler tradition; that is to say, he pretty much stuck to the composer’s tempos and avoided fluctuations within movements. That said, he was far from being a Toscanini imitator; for example, while Toscanini always played the first movement of the Eroica in quick tempo, de Sabata takes a tempo so slow and deliberate that one is reminded of Klemperer in his recordings with the Philharmonia in the 1950s. De Sabata’s slow movement, also rather lugubrious, is nonetheless compelling due to the conductor’s attention to details of dynamics and phrasing.

In my opinion, the best of the LPO recordings is the performance of Sibelius’ En Saga; the quiet passages are wonderfully atmospheric, and de Sabata whips up plenty of excitement in the fast sections.

Finally, there is a recording of Mozart’s Requiem, made in Rome in 1941. This big choir, big orchestra Mozart, in which the soloists are too far forward and choir and orchestra are often a glutinous, ill-defined mass behind them, is not only old-fashioned in concept, but poorly executed and badly recorded. The soloists do have some excellent moments, but far too many that are less than stellar. De Sabata’s attempts to bring some fervor to the proceedings are essentially a lost cause.

While there are some memorable performances in this set, the best of de Sabata is to be found in his live performances from the early 1950s, some of which have been issued, often in inferior sound, on obscure labels. Hopefully, a company like Pristine will take on the task of cleaning up the sound and giving the performances significant circulation.

In 1953, producer Walter Legge persuaded de Sabata to make some recordings for HMV/EMI – the iconic Tosca was the first fruit of their collaboration. But then came the severe heart attack and de Sabata withdrew from further public performances. A disappointing studio recording of the Verdi Requiem, made at La Scala for HMV/EMI in June, 1954 turned out to be de Sabata’s last recording.

Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for, (formerly, and