Georges Sébastian studied at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest, where he was a pupil of Bartók, Kodály and Leo Weiner. After graduating in 1921 he attended Bruno Walter’s conducting class in Munich during 1922 and in the same year joined the Munich State Opera, where Walter was the chief conductor. He also worked as an assistant conductor at the Metropolitan Opera, New York in 1923, before returning to Europe to take up the posts of conductor with the Hamburg State Opera (1924–1925) and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (1925–1927). Sébastian renewed his relationship with Walter in 1927 when he was appointed first conductor at the Berlin Städtische Oper, where the latter was chief conductor; here he conducted several notable Berlin premières, including Bartók’s one-act opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle and Ernst Krenek’s Jonny spielt auf; in addition he also began to specialise in the traditional Austro-German operatic repertoire. In 1931 Sébastian moved to Moscow to become chief conductor of the Moscow Radio Orchestra, conducting the complete symphonic works of Tchaikovsky during the fortieth anniversary of the composer’s death in 1933. He subsequently left Europe, conducting in North and South America between 1938 and 1945, most notably at the San Francisco Opera and with the Scranton Philharmonic Orchestra in Pennsylvania (1940–1945). Having returned to Europe after the end of World War II, Sébastian settled in Paris where he became chief conductor at the Paris Opera (specialising in the Wagnerian repertoire), as well as appearing frequently at the Opéra-Comique and with the Orchestre National de Radio France, the principal broadcasting orchestra in France. He also toured abroad as a guest conductor.
A small, compact figure on the podium, Sébastian was a highly dynamic conductor with a broad but exact stick technique and the capacity to deliver performances of considerable excitement and impact. Although he made several recordings for Walter Legge at Columbia-UK after World War II, the two men did not see eye-to-eye and the relationship was not developed: most of Sébastian’s recordings were published by the American Urania label. Many appeared in the United Kingdom firstly on the Nixa label and later on the budget Classics Club marque. In addition Sébastian recorded occasionally for Decca and Remington, where he was a colleague of the label’s Hungarian recording director, Laszlo Halasz. The bulk of Sébastian’s discography is taken up with operatic recordings, which included sympathetic accounts of French repertoire, including excerpts from Bizet’s Carmen with forces from the Metropolitan Opera, Delibes’s Lakmé, Massenet’s Thaïs and Werther, with Parisian artists, and Thomas’s Mignon recorded in Brussels. In addition he conducted two famous soprano recitals which have been published on disc, with Kirsten Flagstad in Berlin (1952) and Maria Callas in Paris (1958). The symphonic repertoire which he recorded, with predominantly Parisian orchestras, was challenging for the early 1950s, and included Liszt’s Faust and Dante Symphonies, the Symphonies of d’Indy and Dukas, and the Symphony No. 4 by Prokofiev, coupled with the Suite from his ballet The Prodigal Son. For EMI he recorded distinguished accounts of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht and the Adagio from Mahler’s Symphony No 10 with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Sebastian’s Remington recordings encompassed more popular works, such as the Suite from Delibes’s Coppélia and orchestral extracts from the operas of Wagner, but also included an exciting reading of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. The musical strength of many of these recordings may be deduced from the number of times that many of them have been reprinted, testimony to Sébastian’s qualities as an interpreter.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).