, May 2007
Victor de Sabata’s recorded legacy is not very large and during the LP era, as far as I know, he only set down two works, both of them legendary: Tosca with Callas, Di Stefano and Gobbi in August 1953 and this Requiem less than a year later.
What is remarkable about his requiem is the expansive tempos he chooses. Very often he is considerably slower than any other version I have had available. Even if tempi are but one way to describe a reading it can be instructive to compare timings:
|Requiem & Kyrie
It is, I think, interesting to notice how consistent the different conductors are in their tempo relations. The extremes are Toscanini and de Sabata and often there is a quite remarkable difference, more than 2:20 in so short a movement as Agnus Dei. The three later recordings hover somewhere between the two extremes and could be regarded “standard” timings; between them they mostly differ by a few seconds. Robert Shaw, who was chorus master in the Toscanini recording, has for long been my preferred version, superbly played and sung. He has excellent soloists, who may not be as personal as De Sabata’s or Abbado’s but in a work like this, more than in opera, they should subordinate themselves. Toscanini, recorded in 1951, is a hard-hitter who wrings the last drop of drama from the music, always at the risk of vulgarizing it. De Sabata’s is the most devotional, sometimes conveying a feeling of the eternal. This doesn’t mean that his is a pale reading; on the contrary there is such concentration in the playing and singing that one never for a second loses interest. It is easy to imagine the musicians and choristers following every movement, however small, from the charismatic conductor. And make no mistake: there is power here in abundance, but coming from within as opposed to being superimposed from the conductor. Also there are places where DE Sabata even out-Toscaninis Toscanini: in the Tuba mirum they both clock in at 1:53 with Shaw just behind at 1:56. In Dies irae De Sabata is furious and actually beats Toscanini by a few seconds as he does in Sanctus. In other words De Sabata is the one who has the greatest contrast between the inward and outgoing parts of this endlessly fascinating work. That said, the abiding impression after having finished listening is the expansiveness – and the scaled down emotions. De Sabata prefers whisperings to roarings and a whisper can often be more expressive, since one has to listen more closely. Listening to De Sabata’s Requiem most of the time had me sitting leaning forward.
He is well served by the La Scala forces but there are places where especially the female voices are a bit sprawling. For the best choral singing amongst the versions I have listed above Robert Shaw’s is still the superior with Abbado’s Swedish choir just behind. Of course a 50+year-old mono recording is not the ideal way of presenting this monumental music and even on that account Shaw’s Telarc recording is superb. I can’t imagine disposing of any of the other recordings but for a deep-probing spiritual reading De Sabata is hard to beat and for that one can compromise on sound quality. He also has one of the best quartets of soloists on any recording. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, who also sang the soprano part on Giulini’s justly famous EMI recording, made a decade later, is fresher of voice here and not as detailed and interventionist as she was to become. Here she pours out ethereally beautiful phrases with steady tone and few sopranos in this part have been able to scale down to such exquisite pianissimos. Recordare and Lacrymosa are both angelic. She also sings the dramatic opening of Libera me with an intensity and bite that I had thought would be beyond her. Hearing Oralia Dominguez’s golden mezzo in Lux aeterna makes it seem a shame that she wasn’t engaged more often for recordings.
Both the male soloists also sang for Toscanini and their contributions differ as much as the respective conductors’ general approach. Giuseppe Di Stefano was ardent and expressive for Toscanini but he is even better here. I have rarely heard him in more glorious form and he sings with more taste than in many other recordings. He often sings ravishingly softly without getting sentimental and the slower speeds that Sabata adopts cause no problems. His legato is impeccable. Culpa rubet vulture meus in Ingemisco may be over-emphatic and he almost goes over the top at the end but his is as devoted a reading as any and the opening of Hostias is superb! Cesare Siepi was magnificent for Toscanini and is just as powerful and sensitive here though he is more inward. He opens Confutatis with great authority and sings the lines voca me cum benedictis with lyrical intensity and warmth. Few basses, possibly Ezio Pinza excepted, have sung it better.
This issue has further attractions in an almost hour-long appendix with orchestral recordings from the late 1940s and in one case, from 1939. This Aida prelude, issued by Deutsche Grammophon, is something of a rarity. String tone here and in the other titles is a bit thin but again the concentration of the playing is so intense that one soon forgets about technical matters. Even here De Sabata is on the slow side, at least as compared to Toscanini, as can be seen on the timings:
|Traviata act 1
|Traviata act 3
The Toscanini timings are from his complete recordings from the late 1940s with the NBC SO, while the 1929 recordings are with the New York Philharmonic. As can be seen he tended to get faster with advanced age even if the differences are marginal. As with the Requiem we are comparing two masters, steeped in the tradition but with very different approaches. I can’t find any faults in De Sabata’s conducting here, most impressive perhaps in the Vespri overture with its doom-laden opening. The main theme, which also appears in the act 3 duet between Arrigo and Monforte, is actually borrowed from the Giovanna d’Arco overture, composed ten years earlier. This is a very rare example of self-borrowing with Verdi, maybe the only one. These Verdi overtures are of course frequently heard as is the William Tell overture, built here on sharp contrasts with the concluding gallop taken at ferocious speed. I wonder, by the way, how often I have heard that theme as ring-signal on mobile phones. The two Wolf-Ferrari pieces are relative rarities but both are pleasant acquaintances. The Quattro rusteghi intermezzo has a lovely main theme in ¾ time and the Segreto di Susanna overture is a whirlwind. This little opera is still performed occasionally and there are at least two modern recordings, one on Decca with Maria Chiara and Bernd Weikl and the other one on CBS with Renata Scotto and Renato Bruson.
At the end of the 78 rpm era De Sabata’s Fountains of Rome was the most recommendable version and hearing it today one can understand why. In spite of the primitive sound the conductor manages to elicit the magical atmosphere during the different times of the day and Respighi’s superb colouring is still possible to savour.
Anyone who loves Verdi’s Requiem and wants to hear how wide apart readings can be and still be valid, should have Sabata and Toscanini as the extremes and at least one version that stands somewhere in between, why not Shaw who is now available at mid-price. The best way of acquiring Toscanini is buying the budged priced 12-disc-box with his complete Verdi recordings for RCA.