About this Recording
8.111049-50 - VERDI: Messa da Requiem (Schwarzkopf, Di Stefano, De Sabata) (1954)
English 

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)
Messa da Requiem

 

In an era of great Italian-born or Italy-domiciled conductors who were born in the second half of the nineteenth century, one recalls Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945), Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957), Ettore Panizza (1875-1967), Tullio Serafin (1878-1968), Antonio Guarnieri (1880-1952), Vittorio Gui (1885-1975) and Gabriele Santini (1886-1964). To these must be added the youngest of this group Victor de Sabata (1892-1967). His career was much shorter than any of the above, being curtailed by ill-health at the age of 61. He also made comparatively few commercial recordings, being ill-suited to the process, but his reputation will remain permanently etched into posterity with his unique interpretation of Puccini's Tosca, made in 1953, with Maria Callas, Giuseppe Di Stefano and Tito Gobbi. It continues to remain the yardstick by which all subsequent recordings have to be measured.

Born in Trieste on 10 April 1892 and christened Vittorio, Victor de Sabata was the son of a chorus-master of the Teatro alla Scala, Milan. At the age of nine he was enrolled at the Conservatorio Giuseppe Verdi in Milan, studying counterpoint and fugue with Michele Saladino and composition with Giacomo Orefice. He learnt the piano which he would later play with considerable élan in addition to the violin, cello, clarinet, oboe and bassoon, and was also blessed with a remarkable memory. Aged eighteen, he composed a Suite for Orchestra which he submitted for his diploma. In fact it was as a composer that he first came to be known to a wider audience when his opera Il Macigno was first given at La Scala on 30 March 1917. Subsequently revised and renamed Driada for a revival in Turin in 1935, the score was destroyed during the Second World War. This was followed by the symphonic poem Juventus in 1919, a work which both Toscanini and Richard Strauss took up. The piece was felt to combine youthful romantic Italian fervour with lyrical and dramatic episodes in equal measure, together with filtered influences of French and Russian music. The composer himself recorded the work in 1933 [Naxos 8.110859].

Encouraged by Toscanini, de Sabata began a parallel career as composer and conductor, and in 1918 conducted La traviata at the Monte Carlo Opera. Such was his success that he was engaged as an assistant (later principal) conductor the following season, remaining there for a period of twelve years. It was here that he conducted the world première of Ravel's opera L'enfant et les sortilèges in 1925 as well as the first local performances of La Rondine, Sadko, Der Rosenkavalier, Il trittico and Turandot. By 1922 Toscanini intended to engage de Sabata as his assistant in Milan but ultimately felt that their interpretative differences were too marked to allow such a collaboration to flourish.

It was in 1927 that de Sabata first visited the United States when he undertook concerts in both New York and Cincinnatti. His long delayed début at La Scala in Milan took place on 8 February 1930 directing La fanciulla del West and he returned in December the same year for Tristan und Isolde, for which he received great acclaim. During the 1930s de Sabata began to be seen as the house's principal conductor and as such he took the company to Berlin and Vienna in 1937. Two years later he conducted concerts with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and also made a series of recordings with them. He then made his Bayreuth Festival début directing an outstanding and memorable interpretation of Tristan und Isolde with the French soprano Germaine Lubin as Isolde.

In April 1946 de Sabata was engaged by the London Philharmonic Orchestra as the first conductor to visit Britain from a former enemy country. His first rehearsal with the orchestra caused a sensation. He took the players through a blistering reading of Berlioz's Le Carnaval romain Overture in what seemed to those observing a single breath. At the conclusion the musicians en masse stood up and applauded in homage. Examples of his prodigious memory were recalled years later by former players who remembered de Sabata singing the second oboe part accurately and in tune throughout the rehearsal without a note of music in front of him. He was also able to correct errors in well-worn orchestral parts in Beethoven's Eroica and Dvořák's New World Symphonies. His seasons with this London orchestra included memorable cycles of the Beethoven symphonies, an unforgettable concert performance of L'enfant et les sortilèges, and on several occasions, incomparably fiery readings of Verdi's Requiem. London was indeed fortunate to enjoy the visits of de Sabata in the years 1946 to 1951.

In September 1950 de Sabata brought the La Scala Company to the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and conducted blazing performances of Otello and Falstaff, as well as the Requiem, all by Verdi, the like of which had not been heard in that building for many a year. The brilliance, drama, terror and excitement of the opening Storm Scene in Otello almost had the audience cowering in their seats. No wonder it was later said by a member of the audience that "we did everything but put up our umbrellas"!

Victor de Sabata returned in the years 1949, 1950, 1952 and 1953 to the United States, where he conducted in Chicago, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington DC, Baltimore, St. Louis, Detroit, Los Angeles and San Francisco. A number of off-air recordings survive from these concerts and add to our knowledge and appreciation of the conductor's art. In 1953 he was appointed Artistic Director of La Scala but in November that year suffered a major heart attack that brought about the conclusion of his career. He recovered to the extent that he was able to make the recording of Verdi's Requiem in August 1954. He would appear just once more when he conducted the slow movement of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony on the occasion of the burial ceremony for Arturo Toscanini on 18 February 1957. He then resigned from all his La Scala commitments, as he had by then retired to his home at Santa Margherita Ligure where he died on 11 December 1967.

De Sabata made his first recordings in December 1933 for the Italian Cetra label [Naxos 8.110589]. Then followed a series in Berlin for Polydor during April 1939 that included Brahms's Symphony No. 4, Richard Strauss's Tod und Verklärung, Respighi's Feste Romane, Kodály's Dances of Galánta, the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde and the Prelude from Aida (included on this CD). The conductor's only major wartime recording was of Mozart's Requiem in December 1940 for the Cetra label. Following de Sabata's success with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in April 1946, the Decca Record Company undertook the Eroica Symphony, Sibelius's En Saga and Valse triste, Le Carnaval romain and Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries from Die Walküre. EMI, not to be outdone, recorded de Sabata in Rome in January 1947 and February 1948. These sessions brought forth Debussy's Jeux and two of the three Nocturnes (Nuages and Fêtes), Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony (Naxos 8.110859), Respighi's Le fontane di Roma and Debussy's La Mer, together with the various Italian works contained on this CD. Then followed a gap of five years before he made his famous Tosca recording and, finally, the Verdi Requiem.

Several reasons lie behind the limited number of recordings made by de Sabata. He disliked the actual process of recording which meant he had to stop every four or so minutes and then continue when making 78 rpm recordings on wax masters. Also at that time Italy lacked an international symphonic orchestra which proved a problem with EMI. Furthermore the demands de Sabata made upon singers, players, producer and recording team with his striving for perfection meant that some passages of Tosca were recorded more than thirty times. Then de Sabata had retired from the scene by 1954 and despite every entreaty to entice him to return to the studio, he simply refused. He wanted only to compose by this stage.

What was so special about Victor de Sabata? As Tito Gobbi remarked in his autobiography My Life (London, 1979), "De Sabata had an unrivalled talent for breaking down the score into its component parts so that he had each group of instrumentalists playing like individual soloists". He had acquired a brilliant reputation in both operatic and symphonic repertoire, an impassioned and dynamic interpreter who excelled particularly in Verdi and Wagner. Other composers in whose music de Sabata excelled included Debussy, Giordano, Montemezzi, Puccini, Ravel, Respighi, Sibelius, Richard Strauss, Tommasini and Wolf-Ferrari. He also had a great fondness for Boito's Mefistofele and Saint-Saëns's Samson et Dalila.

De Sabata was blessed with a fabulously exact and critical ear, and Herbert von Karajan said of him: "there was a change in the music without him speaking a word". Fellow musicians have also commented that de Sabata was one of the kindliest of men who never uttered a disparaging word about any musician. Some members of the London Philharmonic, however, described the conductor as "a cross between Julius Caesar and Satan".

My father, the English bass Norman Walker (1907-1963) who sang in the Verdi Requiem under de Sabata on a number of occasions, would vividly recall that during the 1951 performance of the work given in York Minster such was the dynamic level achieved by the conductor, chorus and orchestra in the Dies Irae he was convinced the roof of the building would cave in.

Away from music de Sabata loved comedy and slapstick, thus his love of circus performers and the antics of clowns. He loved films such as Kind Hearts and Coronets (with its black humour) and Fantasia. The antics of the Marx Brothers and their films were an especial delight. His son-in-law is the Italian conductor Aldo Ceccato (b. 1934).

The origins of the Messa da Requiem germinated following the death of Rossini in Paris in November 1868. Verdi wrote to his publisher Ricordi suggesting a number of his fellow Italian composers should each contribute a movement for a commemorative Mass. Although the work was completed, the performance failed to take place owing to various complications and it would be over a hundred years before a première did occur. Verdi's contribution was the final section, a Libera me.

Four years later the distinguished writer Alessandro Manzoni died in Milan in May 1873. Verdi had always greatly admired the writer as a symbol who contributed to the unity of Italy and decided to write a Mass to commemorate the deceased. The composer took nearly a year to compose his work, which also included the earlier Libera me. Rehearsals began in early May 1874 with the first performance taking place on 22 May in the church of San Marco in Milan, one year to the day following Manzoni's death. Variously described as "Verdi's best opera" and a "monumental opera in seven acts", it is an intensely dramatic and moving work with a raw and terrifying edge to it: the work could only have been written by an Italian.

The concluding tracks come mainly from nineteenth-century Italian operas, all at that time to be heard regularly in Italy. How poignantly de Sabata captures the delicacy and morbidezza in the two La traviata preludes. Contrast that with the passion and excitement of two dramatic overtures of works set in Sicily and Switzerland. Respighi's colourful evocation of Rome's fountains is most evocatively captured. Then the sharpness and wit of two delightful Wolf-Ferrari's bons-bouche are enchanting. It is also interesting to note that when Toscanini made his final European recordings at La Scala in the summer of 1951, he too should choose the two La traviata Preludes and the Overture to I vespri siciliani, the producer should be none other than Guido Cantelli (1921-1956), the protégé of these two most distinguished forebears.

Malcolm Walker

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Producer's Note

The Requiem was transferred from a single set of German LP pressings. The Aida Prelude came from a postwar yellow-label Deutsche Grammophon shellac pressing, while the remaining items were transferred from British HMV 78s (save for the Respighi, which came from laminated Australian HMVs). The Aida is apparently rather scarce; it was the only one of Sabata's Berlin recordings to have been omitted from Pearl's otherwise complete CD reissue of several years ago.

Mark Obert-Thorn

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VERDI: Messa da Requiem
Recorded 18-22 and 25-27 June 1954 in the Teatro alla Scala, Milan
Matrices: XBX 160 through 163, First issued on Columbia 33CX 1195 and 1196

VERDI: Aida: Prelude to Act 1
Recorded 12 April 1939 in the Alte Jacobstrasse Studio, Berlin
Matrix: 1104 gs IX, First issued on Grammophon 68395

VERDI: La traviata: Prelude to Act 1
Recorded 1 March 1948 in the Teatro Argentina, Rome
Matrix: 2BA 6457-5, First issued on HMV DB 6855

VERDI: La traviata: Prelude to Act 3
Recorded 1 March 1948 in the Teatro Argentina, Rome
Matrix: 2BA 6456-5, First issued on HMV DB 6855

VERDI: I vespri siciliani: Overture
Recorded 7 February 1947 in the Teatro Argentina, Rome
Matrices: 2BA 6117-3 and 6118-2, First issued on HMV DB 6444

WOLF-FERRARI: I quattro rusteghi, Act II: Intermezzo
Recorded 27 February 1948 in the Teatro Argentina, Rome
Matrix: 2BA 6463-2, First issued on HMV DB 6786

WOLF-FERRARI: Il segreto di Susanna: Overture
Recorded 27 February 1948 in the Teatro Argentina, Rome
Matrix: 2BA 6462-3, First issued on HMV DB 6786

ROSSINI: William Tell: Overture
Recorded 27 February 1948 in the Teatro Argentina, Rome
Matrices: 2BA 6458-5, 6459-2, 6460-4 and 6461-3, First issued on HMV DB 6880 and 6881

RESPIGHI: The Fountains of Rome
Recorded 23 and 24 January 1947 in the Teatro Argentina, Rome
Matrices: 2BA 6119-2, 6120-4, 6121-3 and 6122-1, First issued on HMV DB 6448 and 6449


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