About this Recording
8.110859 - BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 6 (de Sabata) (1947)

Great Conductors • Victor De Sabata

Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 ‘Pastoral’

Born in Trieste in April 1892, the son of a chorus master, the young Victor De Sabata was quick to astonish with the range and accomplishment of his musical talents. Although expert on many instruments and blessed with a phenomenal memory, his most significant initial progress was in composition. Recognising that his special gifts needed more fertile opportunity to develop, the family moved to Milan, where he entered the Conservatorio Giuseppe Verdi. It was here that he also began to study conducting, but it was for instrumental achievement on the piano and violin together with composition that he gained his diploma in 1910.

De Sabata’s work was taken up by the conductors Tullio Serafin and Walter Damrosch, and his compositional rising star was such that he was commissioned by La Scala to write an opera, Il macigno, mounted to considerable acclaim in 1917 when he was only 24. Revised and renamed as Driada some eighteen years later for a revival in Turin, all the performing material apart from the vocal score was destroyed by bombing in the Second World War. Regrettably De Sabata never completed a reconstruction. It was in Milan, however, that he came to the notice of Toscanini, who was to prove a source of considerable encouragement in giving him the confidence to broaden his activities to include conducting. Spurred on by the success of the opera, the young composer quickly went on to write in 1919 the work that for a time came to be regarded almost as his signature piece, the orchestral symphonic poem Juventus. Brimful of youthful ardour and vigour, the idiom unmistakably takes a cue from Strauss’s Don Juan, but like his contemporary Ottorino Respighi, the language is much filtered through the French and Russian connections of late-Romanticism. Indeed, in its heraldic sweep and confident zest, the music draws notably close to the language of his contemporary, Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Both Toscanini and Richard Strauss conducted the work in Europe and the United States. Not surprisingly, the composer’s own recording proclaims the work’s ebullient qualities with special authority.

Subsequent compositions deployed a similar orchestral palette and exotic subject matter to those of Respighi, but without the modal and Gregorian influence of his compatriot. De Sabata composed two further significant orchestral works, La Notte di Platon and Gethsemani, during the 1920s, before a return to the stage with ballet music for another La Scala commission, 1001 Nights, in 1931, as well as incidental music for a Venice production of The Merchant of Venice staged by Max Reinhardt in 1934. Unfortunately like so much similar luxuriously scored repertoire composed between the two world wars in the last century, his music vanished from concert and recording exposure to be virtually lost without trace until a recent revival of interest in the studio revealed its distinctive qualities for new audiences already exploring alternative paths to twelve-tone serialism and composers suppressed by contemporary political upheavals.

Inspired by the example and friendship of Toscanini, conducting swiftly became a more public twin track of musical activity and fulfilment for the aspiring young musician. Immediately after the First World War, De Sabata began to give orchestral concerts in Italy and almost at the same time secured the post of principal conductor at the Monte Carlo Opera, where he famously conducted the first performance of Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges as well as the first French performance of Puccini’s La rondine. He remained at Monte Carlo for twelve years before coming full circle back to La Scala, conducting there for the first time in 1929, later to become musical and artistic director. His début was with Puccini’s La fanciulla del West, but like his mentor Toscanini, he soon established a particular affinity for Wagner with memorable performances of Tristan und Isolde. This success took him to the hallowed halls of Berlin and Munich as well as to Bayreuth in 1939.

The association with La Scala was to remain De Sabata’s most enduring legacy, enshrined towards the end of his career by the legendary recording of Tosca with Callas, Gobbi and di Stefano. Iconic though the singing of those illustrious principals may be, the orchestral and dramatic Puccinian context is as perceptively realised by an operatic conducting genius second to none. De Sabata’s commercial recorded legacy is not particularly extensive. The collection of shorter pieces presented here features some of his first studio ventures and represents daring repertoire for the time. Classical repertoire did not feature prominently in his recorded output. Although he presented a Beethoven Symphony cycle with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in the Royal Albert Hall in 1947, only Nos.3 and 6 were committed to disc elsewhere. Apart from a Mozart Requiem, Brahms Symphony No.4, and some Rossini and Verdi orchestral items, the few recordings concentrate on later nineteenth and early twentieth century works, notably superbly-wrought performances of Sibelius’s En Saga, Debussy’s Jeux and Respighi’s Fontane di Roma. His last recording in 1954 was of the Verdi Requiem with Schwarzkopf, Dominguez, di Stefano and Siepi, once again with La Scala forces, but for all the occasional splendours, his powers are audibly constricted by the heart attack he had suffered following the Tosca sessions of the previous year.

Like Toscanini, De Sabata was renowned for attention to detail and a tyranny on the podium that could be especially intimidating towards singers. Unlike his compatriot, his volatility was perhaps more at the service of spontaneity rather than trying to achieve the perfect performance. In this respect, his style was more akin to Furtwängler and resulted in extremes of tempo, dynamics and a general unpredictability of approach very much geared to the whim of the moment. This may account for his unease regarding the whole process of recording, something with which he was never entirely comfortable. It also significantly hampered his progress in the United States, where he never experienced the same adulation or promotional enthusiasm laid before the all-conquering Maestro.

Somewhat ironically, De Sabata’s last public appearance was to conduct for the funeral commemoration of Toscanini at La Scala in 1957. Thereafter he retired from the podium to live on for another ten years in almost total obscurity. Rumours persist that he experimented once again with composition during his last decade of retirement, but in the absence of any known completed works, only a select number of earlier compositions and the recordings remain to bear witness to a remarkable talent.

Ian Julier

Mark Obert-Thorn

Mark Obert-Thorn is one of the world’s most respected transfer artist/engineers. He has worked for a number of specialist labels, including Pearl, Biddulph, Romophone and Music & Arts. Three of his transfers have been nominated for Gramophone Awards. A pianist by training, his passions are music, history and working on projects. He has found a way to combine all three in the transfer of historical recordings. Obert-Thorn describes himself as a ‘moderate interventionist’ rather than a ‘purist’ or ‘re-processor,’ unlike those who apply significant additions and make major changes to the acoustical qualities of old recordings. His philosophy is that a good transfer should not call attention to itself, but rather allow the performances to be heard with the greatest clarity.

There is no over-reverberant ‘cathedral sound’ in an Obert-Thorn restoration, nor is there the tinny bass and piercing mid-range of many ‘authorised’ commercial issues. He works with the cleanest available 78s, and consistently achieves better results than restoration engineers working with the metal parts from the archives of the modern corporate owners of the original recordings. His transfers preserve the original tone of the old recordings, maximising the details in critical upper mid-range and lower frequencies to achieve a musical integrity that is absent from many other commercially released restorations.

Producer’s Note

This release gathers together all of De Sabata’s early recordings for Italian Parlophon, along with his classic postwar HMV set of Beethoven’s Pastorale. In addition to the first five tracks on this disc, De Sabata also recorded the Act II Intermezzo from Wolf-Ferrari’s I Quattro rusteghi at these sessions, a side which has remained unissued. Although he would later re-record that title for HMV, he was never to bring the other works before the microphones again, making these recordings (particularly his own tone poem, Juventus) valuable entries in his comparatively slim discography.

The Turin Orchestra of the Italian Broadcasting Authority sides were recorded in a small studio, and are in rather primitive sound for their time They have been transferred from Italian pressings (the Stravinsky and both Glazunov sides), a British Parlophone (the Mossolov) and American Deccas (the De Sabata work). The Beethoven was taken from British HMV pressings whose inherent crackle was cleaned up to a large extent through the use of the CEDAR declicking module.

Mark Obert-Thorn

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