Victor de Sabata – The Complete Berlin Philharmonic Recordings = BRAHMS: Symphony No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 98; R. STRAUSS: Death and Transfiguration, Op. 24; WAGNER: Tristan: Prelude and Love-Death; VERDI: Prelude to Aida; KODALY: Dances of Galanta; RESPIGHI: Feste Romane – Berlin Philharmonic Orch./ Victor de Sabata – Pristine PASC 404 (2 CDs): TT: 2:06:21 [avail. in various formats at] *****:

In 1981, I had the distinct pleasure of having met, in Atlanta – her husband Aldo Ceccato’s having been engaged to lead the ASO – the daughter of eminent conductor Vittorio de Sabata (1892-1967); and Mrs. Ceccato found delight in my LP copy of RCA LM 1057, De Sabata’s performances of Debussy and Respighi, the former of which, the ballet Jeux, “was my father’s favorite recording.” I have mentioned this meeting in my prior review for (October 21, 2006). The repute of Victor de Sabata – especially in the operatic world of Puccini, Verdi, and Wagner – far outshone that of Toscanini, and many of the musical cognoscenti rated de Sabata with Furtwaengler as the most distinguished orchestra leaders world-wide. A passionate advocate of all the music he led, de Sabata insisted on absolute clarity and precision with no relaxation in the force of the evolving musical line. One of his players described his podium presence as “a cross between Julius Caesar and Satan.”

Prior to the series of March-April 1939 inscriptions De Sabata made with the Berlin Philharmonic, the conductor’s discography remained scanty, indeed, limited to eight sides he cut with an Italian radio orchestra (Turin) in late December, 1933. Recording engineer and producer Mark Obert-Thorn has revitalized the present Berlin inscriptions – formerly available on the German Heliodor label – with the same attention and devotion as he had applied to the 1933 sessions (on Naxos 8.110859). The level of orchestral discipline in Berlin finds a thorough synergy between conductor and players, and the rare Aida Prelude – having been omitted on a Pearl label restoration – comes back to us, as well as the former Discocorp LP version of the Feste Romane.

The Brahms Fourth generates not only a valedictory sensibility, but a lyrical intimacy whose essentially polyphonic character aligns the work with Bach chorale-preludes.  We feel the last bars of the first movement Allegro non troppo as the inexorable resolution to a self-contained world having worked out its pre-conceived destiny. The E Major Andante moderato adds to the aforementioned virtues the sense of austere mystery, an autumnal, Phrygian melancholy that will achieve noble and visionary heights before its song passes away. The (overly) speedy Allegro giocoso tests the BPO’s mettle and precision, but only in the exterior sections, while the haunted Trio section enjoys a bucolic serenity. De Sabata justly balances the archaic and the Romantic in the Brahms concluding passacaglia, again imbued with a mysterious aura. The moving bass line in the cellos and low horns assumes a pronounced gravitas, but fluid and rife with the dramatic possibility. The pace then hurtles forward, strings and brass in contrary collision, until the syncopated version of the ground theme appears and descends into the fulminating abyss. A moment of clarity, reminiscent of the Haydn Variations ensues, then once more into the breach.  De Sabata gathers up his fateful theme for one final declamation of fateful resignation, into which the coda plunges us irresistibly.

For the hothouse symphonic poem Tod und Verklaerung De Sabata evinces the same sympathy, likely aware that the composer himself conducted this score in the recording studio. The constant tympanic strokes in the course of the Largo bode a dire struggle ahead, the Allegro molto agitato of the first encounter with Death. The “Dreams of the dying one” (Meno mosso, ma sempre alla breve) exerts a transparent delicacy of phrase and line, a wistful, even blissful, remembrance of times past. With the death-strokes, transfiguration. The huge pedal point – almost an adumbration of the opening for Zarathustra – leads to subtle interplay of brass, strings, and harp. De Sabata inaugurates what may be construed as an evolving waltz, poised in Technicolor brass and string effects, lulling us into a conviction of transcendence.

Disc 2 devotes itself to De Sabata’s control over a wide spectrum of colors: beginning with an ardent, erotic, even lascivious rendition of the “Prelude and Love-Death” from Tristan, what one critic calls “a locus classicus of etched phrasing dynamics.” Even the portamentos enjoy a subtle suavity, beside De Sabata’s ardently breathed, layered phrases. The Aida Prelude likewise combines love and death in erotic mystery. With four of the Kodaly 1933 Dances of Galanta, we enter a rarified world of gypsy motifs and martial, recruiting folk tunes meant to enrich the Hungarian patriotic spirit. The Berlin Philharmonic would not encounter such impassioned, vigorous confrontation with this music again until the advent of Sergiu Celibidache, who used to hide in concert halls overnight in order to witness De Sabata rehearsals!

Although some would classify Respighi’s Feste Romane as “kitchen-sink music” made to offer every percussive effect known to man, a great conductor, a Toscanini, Goossens, or De Sabata, can rescue it and perhaps exalt it. The opening sequence means to invoke gruesome spectacle, since the Circuses sometimes called for Christian blood. The Jubilee offers a study in crescendo and musical transition, depicting the progression of Christian pilgrims towards the bell-tolling Eternal City. The brisk October Festival features a Romantic’s evocation of a hunt, with a mandolin’s colors added for effect. La Befana is translated as “The Epiphany,” but its function is to address childhood lore of witchcraft for bad children and earthly rewards for virtue. Grotesquerie and saturnalia combine in a feverish performance, as ecstatic as it is essentially pagan in spirit. We shall not easily hear the likes of De Sabata again.

—Gary Lemco