La notte di Plàton [21'41]
This CD is going to provide unexpected delight for lovers of the Late-Romantics. Victor de Sabata is remembered as a remarkably dynamic conductor who made some stunning records with the London Philharmonic Orchestra for Decca in the 1940s and 50s. It is not so well known that he was also a composer. Here are three ravishing symphonic poems from the early 1920s, substantial in length and gorgeously scored for an enormous orchestra. Everybody who responds to Respighi, Rachmaninov, Scriabin, Strauss and Busoni is going to love this disc. The conductor, Aldo Ceccato, is de Sabata's son-in-law and has long championed these scores around the world. Here he directs de Sabata's 'own' orchestra, the LPO, in their first commercial recordings. Sonically, this disc is state-of-the-art.
When Victor de Sabata died on 11 December 1967 at the age of seventy-five, the world of music mourned a man who was primarily regarded as a conductor of outstanding gifts. His celebrated mastery of every instrument, his gift as a pianist and his prodigious memory were well known, but few knew that, at the beginning of his musical career, he had wide recognition as a composer with the backing and support of Toscanini, who conducted various works of the young de Sabata in the 1920s.
Victor de Sabata was born in Trieste in April 1892, into a musical family, and his father soon recognised his talent for composition. The family moved to Milan and a very young de Sabata enrolled in the Conservatorio Giuseppe Verdi where he studied with Michele Saladino and later with Giacomo Orefice (the latter noted for editing an important version of Monteverdi’s Orfeo). De Sabata’s progress was extraordinary and at the age of eighteen he won the diploma ‘cum laude’ in composition, piano and violin. Conductors like Tullio Serafin and Walter Damrosch soon presented his diploma composition in public concerts, and his reputation was such that La Scala commissioned him to compose an opera in 1917, when he was twenty-four. This opera, Il Macigno, was revised eighteen years later and, renamed Driada, was performed in Turin. Sadly the score was destroyed in the fires of the bombing raids on Milan during the Second World War and only the piano and vocal score survived.
It was at La Scala that the tone poem Juventus was first conducted by Toscanini, to whom Victor de Sabata was very close, and grateful for his professional guidance in his conducting career. With his appointment as First Conductor at the Opera of Monte Carlo he was recognised as a new great performing talent and in 1925 he conducted there the world première of Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges. The performance of his compositions in the USA, together with his reputation as a conductor, led de Sabata to visit America, where he made his debut in 1926. In the ’30s de Sabata appeared frequently in Vienna and Bayreuth and in several concerts on tour with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, with whom he made a splendid ‘78’ set of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony in 1939 – his first important recording.
From 1930 he conducted regularly at La Scala where, after a triumphant performance of Tristan und Isolde, he was particularly loved. He composed music for the ballet 1001 Nights, a choreographic fairy tale set in New York, for La Scala, where it was performed in 1931. Just before his death, de Sabata completed a Suite based on this sparkling score. In 1934 he composed incidental music for The Merchant of Venice, for a famous Max Reinhardt production in the Campo San Trovaso in Venice.
After the war de Sabata was invited to London – the first conductor from the Axis powers to appear in Britain after hostilities had ceased. He had been invited by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, with whom he recorded Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony and Sibelius’s En Saga for Decca, among other works. Again with the LPO he conducted a Beethoven symphony cycle at the Royal Albert Hall. He returned to the USA after the war, appearing with the Chicago and Pittsburgh symphony orchestras, and in March 1950 he directed a series of broadcast concerts with the New York Philharmonic, after which his American engagements proliferated. There was hardly a major American orchestra that de Sabata did not conduct.
De Sabata was not particularly keen on recording, as he was rarely satisfied by the technical results, but developments stemming from new techniques convinced him to record for English Columbia (part of EMI) the operas that he would conduct at La Scala. It was thus that in 1953 he conducted at La Scala what many regard as the greatest recording ever made of Puccini’s Tosca, with Maria Callas, Giuseppe di Stefano and Tito Gobbi. This was his first and, as it turned out, only opera recording, as soon after he suffered a serious heart attack which almost killed him. He had thus to abandon conducting, but a year or so later, in June 1954, de Sabata recorded, also at La Scala for English Columbia, Verdi’s Requiem with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Oralia Dominguez, Giuseppe di Stefano and Cesare Siepi. But his health was failing. In February 1957, he made his last public appearance at La Scala, conducting at Toscanini’s funeral. For almost eleven years thereafter he was unable to stand the strain of conducting, and he died in December 1967.
At the time of his death, Victor de Sabata’s own music was virtually forgotten, and, given the isolation in which he lived his last years, his legacy was known to very few. As we can hear from the three substantial orchestral works on this CD, de Sabata’s music is far from negligible, and we must regret that he did not pursue his gifts as a composer later in life. The very rare chance to hear these pieces enables us to make some kind of restitution towards a more rounded appreciation of the art of a very great musician. These three symphonic works constitute virtually the whole of Victor de Sabata’s orchestral music, but they were considered important enough, for example, both for Walter Damrosch to programme a four-movement Symphonic Suite by de Sabata (dating from 1912) as well as Juventus with the New York Symphony in December 1918 and February 1921 respectively, and also for Toscanini to conduct Juventus with the New York Philharmonic in February and March 1928 (on tour), and to give Gethsemani, with the Philharmonic, in January and February 1926 and in March 1933. Later performances of Juventus in the USA were under de Sabata himself, in Cincinnati in 1927 and 1931, in Detroit in 1934, and in Pittsburgh in the 1949 seasons. The French conductor-composer Jean Martinon conducted the British premiere of Juventus with the London Philharmonic in the immediate post-war years.
With the exception of a few works by Ottorino Respighi, and for reasons which are relatively obscure, the orchestral concert music of succeeding generations of Italian composers has – so far as international acceptance is concerned – remained little-known. In varying degrees, several eminently gifted and worthwhile composers’ works have been neglected, a manifestly unfair situation which only in recent years has shown signs of being reversed. It is to this body of work that the compositions of Victor de Sabata belong. His three major orchestral pieces, recorded here, demonstrate the injustice of this neglect.
La notte di Plàton (The Night of Plato)
This symphonic poem seeks to represent in music the eternal conflict of the two contesting forces in man: on the one hand that of the flesh and the reckless pursuit of pleasure; on the other, that of the spirit, with its call for detachment and self-denial. The composer has tried to reproduce the passions which this struggle expresses, framing them in the beautiful vision of almost palpable clarity evoked by the following passage in the book Les Grands Initiés by Edouard Schuré:
“Plato spent a fortune on this feast. The tables were prepared in the garden. Youths holding torches illuminated the guests. The three most beautiful courtesans of Athens were present.
“The feast continued all night. Smiling, Plato stood up and said: “This feast is the last one I offer you. From today I renounce life's pleasures to dedicate myself to wisdom and to follow the teachings of Socrates.” A single cry of surprise and protest arose. The courtesans stood up and left in their litters, glancing spitefully at the master of the house.
“The cream of Athenean’s society and the sophists left with ironic jibes – “Farewell Plato! Be happy! You will return to us! Goodbye! Goodbye!”
“Two pensive youths stayed behind, close to him. Plato led these faithful friends by the hand into the inner courtyard of the house, leaving behind an amphora of wine half empty, and cups still full. Heaped on small altar was a pyramid of papyrus rolls: all of Plato’s poetry. Taking a torch and laughing, Plato set them alight. When the flames had finally died down, the friends, with tears in their eyes, silently took leave of their future teacher. But Plato, left alone, did not weep.
“A peace, a wondrous serenity filled his soul. His thoughts were of Socrates whom he was about to see. The approaching dawn touched the balconies of the house, the colonnades, the pediments of the temples and suddenly the first rays of the sun made the golden helmet of Arthemis shine on the slope of the Acropolis.”
The work follows the writer’s vision, opening with the songs and dances of the feast, in which primitive and exotic modes emphasise the oriental character of the orgy. Gradually this dies down, giving place to an evocation of Plato’s words: his gentle and serene demeanour is contrasted with the sarcastic cries of his guests as they abandon him in the coming dawn.
This imaginative score (it was at night that Plato contemplated his Symposium) opens with a zephyr of high woodwind and string tone that soon settles, against which a long, lyrical theme unfurls. The tone-colour of this first statement of the theme is unique: oboe, muted trumpet and half the viola section in unison; this main theme – the ‘Plato’ theme – is repeated on violins against fuller (but no less gentle) accompaniment, before the flutes have an animated dance-like theme, in the same key (A flat). The zephyr returns, interrupted by a crude gesture on the lower brass which invokes a longer stretch of music – faster and soon dominated by an insistent timpani figure – in which the Platonic theme engages in strong disputation. This fades momentarily but returns with greater power and the ‘dispute’ is more fully engaged. At length, a momentary, dream-like waltz interrupts but this is soon discarded, before the ‘Plato’ theme returns, passionately excited. This triumphantly dominates proceedings and seems to ‘take on’ the destructive forces until a new stretch of contemplative music emerges with a broader theme of rising fourths. Once again the Plato theme is alluded to, ushering in a genuinely humorous passage; after a momentary hesitation, this ‘scherzo’-like music now returns with greater energy. As it dies away, in the ebbing zephyr, a new theme, in a new tonality, G major, emerges from the strings in octaves, and the final great part of the work unfolds. As a majestic sense of calm descends, the Platonic theme is alluded to in conjunction with others before the music is brought to an end.
The search for G major here is a fascinating one; de Sabata’s harmonic subtlety can be judged in the frequent avoidance of the tonic – the ending, it seems, is complete, but not quite final.
Night descends on Gethsemani. The shadows fall; stillness and silence reign. It is as if the garden itself remembers that evening when the Saviour himself came to it, seeking rest after those tumultuous days in Jerusalem. Our heart is overcome with holy ecstasy, and worships you … and yearns to sleep, thus, among your memories, and to dream …
A mysterious call reverberates in the sky. The heavens, trembling, seem to shower the Holy Land with a gentle rain of stars. In the silence a remote voice affirms the unyielding law of ‘Pain’ and ‘Redemption by Renunciation’.
We tremble, search our hearts and humble ourselves; we berate ourselves and are sad …. Then, unexpectedly, we feel a touch like a caress – perhaps that of the first breath of dawn. We look up towards heaven, to the multitude of constellations and galaxies, and we are suddenly aware of God’s promise to us all.
This, surely, is the hour for reflection and prayer …
With the composer’s own descriptive outline of the work, it is easy to follow its emotional progress; what is of particular interest is that the entire thematic material is based upon Gregorian chant, but which is so subtly stated at the outset (on muted first violins – a rising unaccompanied phrase) that it is at once transformed into a larger monothematic study, whose orchestration is of great beauty and refinement.
Juventus is, as its name implies, a tone poem about youth. It portrays, first of all, youth’s enthusiasm and impetuosity, its ambition, its search for joy and power, and all those resplendent dreams that – when we are young – dwell in the hearts of us all …
Then, all too soon, comes the inevitable confrontation with the realities of everyday life. The triumphant dreams fade: exaltation gives way to sadness, idealism to despair. The songs of hope are transformed into mocking laughter and the tolling of funeral bells, until those, too, gradually die away into silence – bearing with it the threat of eternal annihilation.
But suddenly youth revives, its energy restored by the force of life within it. Its faith and its hopes return, made stronger by past adversity. It spreads its wings and soars again into the empyrean to the conquest of life.
The first performance of Juventus was given on 25 May 1919 at the Teatro del Popolo in Milan, under Arturo Voghera, and the piece was soon taken up by Toscanini.
‘It is’, as Otto Kinkeldey wrote, ‘an ode to youth, filled with all the boundless, impulsive enthusiasm of youth as seen by a vigorous young man’. In some respects the work shares similar moods to those of Richard Strauss’s Don Juan, but Juventus is no imitation of the earlier masterpiece, although de Sabata’s score is likewise notable for its orchestral brilliance and symphonic control. It falls into three large sections, related in outline to sonata structure. Juventus opens, ‘Allegro impetuoso’, with a tremendous outpouring of energy, based on a brilliantly rising idea, firmly in A major (the overall key of the work). This is treated to extended development – with momentary recollections of Petrushka– before the tempo (‘Moderato molto’), key (F sharp major) and mood change. A new theme, clearly that of youthful rapture, unfolds, and is likewise treated developmentally. A subtle change to B flat ushers in the main central section wherein the material is more closely juxtaposed and the orchestration assumes a more fantastical character. At length, the tempo changes to ‘Allegro vivace’, but pp, as the underlying pulse ‘filled with all the boundless, impulsive enthusiasm’ returns. The final recapitulatory section has all the energy and drive of the first, underpinned by some wide-ranging tonality changes until the exciting ending is upon us.
Robert Matthew-Walker © 2001