VICTOR DE SABATA:  La notte di Plàton.  Gethsemani.  Juventus.
London Philharmonic Orch/Aldo Ceccato, cond.

HYPERION CDA 67209 (F) (DDD)  TT:  62:57

Victor de Sabata (1892-1967) is remembered today as a dynamic conductor particularly of Italian repertory. Arturo Toscanini promoted de Sabata's career not only as a conductor but as a composer as well, conducting a number of his works in the '20s. De Sabata, born in Trieste into a musical family, studied in the Conservatorio Giuseppe Verdi and later with Giacomo Orefice. When eighteen he won the diploma 'cum laude' in composition, piano and violin. Soon Tullio Serafin and Walter Damrosch conducted his music, and La Scala asked him to write an opera in 1917.  The opera, Il Macigno, was revised eighteen years later, renamed Driada, and performed in Turin. Its score was destroyed in fires of the bombing raids on Milan in the Second World War. DeSabata was appointed first conductor of the Monte Carlo Opera where in 1925 he conducted the world premiere of Ravel's L'Enfant et les SortilĖges. He appeared with the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics and in Bayreuth, making his U.S. debut in 1926. Beginning in 1930 he conducted at La Scala where he had particular success in Wagner's Tristan and Isolde. In 1953 at La Scala he made the acclaimed recording of Puccini's Tosca with Maria Callas, Giuseppe de Stefano and Tito Gobbi, his only commercial opera recording—although he did record Verdi's Requiem and EMI did issue his La Scala Macbeth and I vespri Siciliani broadcasts with Callas. In addition to Tosca, de Sabata is known for the few recordings he made with the Berlin and London Philharmonic Orchestras and the Augusteo Orchestra of Rome, as well as broadcasts with the New York Philharmonic in 1950, some of which have been issued on pirate CDs. In February 1957 he made his last appearance at La Scala conducting at Toscanini's funeral. For the next eleven years, crippled by arthritis, he was too weak to conduct, and died in December 1967.

His compositions include a ballet 1001 Nights, a choreographic fairy tale set in New York, written for La Scala where it was performed in 1931.  Today his music is virtually forgotten; the current Schwann/Opus has no listings.  Thus this new  Hyperion CD is of considerable interest as it contains major orchestral music considered to be important enough for Toscanini and Walter Damrosch to program with some regularity. Jean Martinon conducted the British premiere of Juventus with the London Philharmonic in the immediate post-war years.

Juventus, the earliest work on this CD, dates from 1919. It's a 16-minute symphonic poem about youth beginning and ending with surging themes reminiscent of Korngold's Sursum Corda written the same year. A central section represents despair and failure, overcome with the return of youth's energy. Next in composition is the 22-minute La notte di Plàton (The Night of Plato), dating from 1923. It contrasts the eternal conflict of flesh and pursuit of pleasure with the spirit of detachment and self-denial. We hear songs and dances of the feast, including an orgy, an exotic oriental dance, and a "Plato theme" describing the learned philosopher and his search for wisdom and serenity.

The third work, Gethsemani (Gethsemane) written in 1925 is the longest of the three (24:26). It's described as a symphonic meditation, a "contemplative poem," opening and closing reverently, based on Gregorian chant. It begins with evocation of night descending on Gethsemani as the heavens seem to shower the Holy Land with a gentle rain of stars and a remote voice affirms the unyielding law of 'Pain' and 'Redemption by Renunciation' and the hour for reflection and prayer.

De Sabata obviously is a master of orchestration. His music always is attractive and appropriate for his subjects. Unfortunately his music lacks the distinction of some of his countrymen, particularly Ottorino Respighi who was composing at the same time and whose symphonic poem The Pines of Rome was one of the Italian conductor's specialties (de Sabata's incandescent live performance with the New York Phil is available on CD). Aldo Ceccato was one of the composer/conductor's few pupils and married his daughter Eliana—facts not mentioned in Ceccato's bio in the CD notes.  The London Philharmonic play de Sabata's scores with conviction and the recording, made in London's Walthamstow Assembly Hall in December 2000, is vivid.  It is admirable of Hyperion to invest in this venture—they have done a service to collectors who now have an opportunity to hear de Sabata the composer.  However, there's no doubt that the conductor's fame will continue to be for his conducting rather than for his music.

R.E.B. (May 2001)