Victor de Sabata
La notte di Platon
London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Aldo Ceccato
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: June 2001
CD No: HYPERION CDA67209
Should you not know, Victor de Sabata (1892-1967) would be on most people’s list of great conductors. Blessed with a prodigious memory, not only could de Sabata play the piano very well, he also mastered most orchestral instruments. There is usually a story of him demonstrating his prowess; the one most often told is when he was frustrated by an instrumentalist’s failure to meet his requirements. “You play it then,” said the musician; de Sabata went over, took the horn – which is the instrument usually cited – and played him exactly what he wanted.
Dictionary entries for de Sabata will give chapter and verse on his appointments and triumphs, simply adding that he also composed; his recordings report an exacting conductor, one with a volatile temperament, and his demands for precision.
It appears that as he got older he virtually ceased composition – a combination of a busy conducting career and ill-health one imagines (he retired from conducting in 1957). The music here – more or less his major orchestral pieces (the notes mention some incidental music, enough for a second CD?) – was written between 1919 and 1925, the year he premiered Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortileges. De Sabata included his own music in concerts; Toscanini, Walter Damrosch and Jean Martinon also took it up.
There’s a lot to relish in all three pieces. Each has some wonderfully inventive material – Italian warmth (de Sabata was born in Trieste), voluptuous, soaring phrases, and episodes alternatively exuberant and seductive. The opening few minutes of The Night of Plato – ’the reckless pursuit of pleasure [conflicting with] detachment and self-denial’ – should have you hooked; there’s a gorgeous expanse of melody from 0’40”, beautifully coloured too, very Italian in its kinship to Respighi. Yet, structurally, the music loses its way; a problem with the longest piece here, the 25-minute Gethsemani, which the composer sub-titles ’Poema contemplativo’. The ’reflection and prayer’ is, again, very beautiful, but seems over-generous with atmosphere at the expense of variety and genuine development.
There’s also the extent of de Sabata’s influences. In Plato, not only Respighi, but also Korngold, Wagner and Richard Strauss. Parsifal is alluded to, so too Death and Transfiguration; a more skittish idea reminds of Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Gethsemani impresses in de Sabata’s control of contemplation over a big canvas, and he has a wonderful ability to suggest the night and a star-clad sky.
Juventus – Youth, not the football team – is the earliest piece here (1919). William Walton must surely have heard Martinon’s post-war British premiere of this? There’s a startling similarity with ceremonial Walton – syncopation, virtuoso orchestration and exuberance. This is good; and how can you resist the film-music from 2’42” – pure Korngold, pure Hollywood.
It would be idle to pretend that these are long-lost masterpieces; there’s not enough individuality for that. But all three scores are worth getting to know and returning to – Juventus especially. The performances under Ceccato – who I believe is de Sabata’s son-in-law – are very fine; the LPO, in splendid form, recorded with de Sabata, including the Eroica.
With superb sound, this CD is recommended for the music itself and not because it was written by a famous conductor.