De Sabata Orchestral Works Hyperion

Déjà Review: this review was first published in 2002 and the recording is still available. Ian Lace passed away in 2021.

Victor de Sabata (1892-1967)
La notte di Plàton
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Aldo Ceccato
rec. 2000, Walthamstow Assembly Halls, London
Hyperion CDA67209 [63]

This highly colourful, dramatic, generously melodic music could so well have been written for the screen. So often it reminds one of the heady effulgence of Max Steiner and Korngold in full flow. Hyperion is therefore to be congratulated on recording these terrific works; it is only to be regretted that de Sabata wrote so little. It all comes as something of a surprise when one remembers de Sabata as a gifted conductor. In that capacity, he has left a significant legacy of recordings of late Romantic and Impressionist music, notably recordings of works by Debussy and Respighi; and probably the best-ever recording of Puccini’s Tosca with Callas, di Stefano and Gobbi (reissued this month by EMI, at mid-price in their ‘Great Recordings of the Century’ series). [Considering that opera was really the only genre in demand in Italy, and that so few Italian composers broke away to compose orchestral or other forms of music (Respighi for instance) might explain why de Sabata was discouraged from further composition.]

La notte di Plàton (The Night of Plato), written in 1923, represents the opposites of hedonistic pleasures of the flesh and the quiet restraint and introspection of the spirit. De Sabata choses, as his illustration, Plato’s last feast before renouncing pleasure to follow the teachings of Socrates. A sumptuous, grandiose work, scored for a huge orchestra, it is extremely colourful and exciting in its wild orgiastic dances and languid and voluptuous in its suggestion of carnal earthly pleasures. All this abandon is contrasted with calmer contemplative material and a memorable melody, aspiring and noble. The influences are numerous: Richard Strauss certainly, probably Respighi, and perhaps Mahler.

Night descends on Gethsemane. Peace and tranquility reigns. Pilgrims looking towards the heavenly stars are overcome with holy ecstasy in contemplation of the Saviour’s suffering and God’s promise… This is the scenario of de Sabata’s 1925 composition, Gethsemani (poema contemplativo). The entire thematic material is based on Gregorian chant subtly stated at the outset and developed with great beauty and refinement. This is descriptive, impressionistic music, predominantly serene and contemplative, the music fragrant colourful and evocative of moonlit fountains, flowers and birdsong. The violence of our Lord’s arrest is beheld at arm’s length and not allowed to intrude into the foreground. The momentous, yet slowly gathering Romantic climax is more in keeping with the Passion of Christ’s love for the world and its redemption, rather than his suffering (although, in the decrescendo, this image may be just apparent). One can easily imagine this music being used in some Hollywood biblical epic.

Probably the most ‘Golden Age of Hollywood’ – like music comes in the shortest of the three works, Juventus (Youth), composed by de Sabata in 1919. In this composition, de Sabata sets confident thrusting music against passages of restraint to suggest the joy and passion of youth as opposed to the hesitant, inhibition and disillusionment of increasing years. In this fulsome melodic composition, in de Sabata’s most Romantic voice there are pre-echoes of Max Steiner and Korngold. I feel sure, for instance, that Bette Davis would have given her eye-tooth to have this composition underscore Dark Victory or Mr Skeffington.

For all unashamed romantics — this recording is absolutely fabulous. Don’t miss it. If only today’s composer’s of film music could find such a lyrical and unrestrained voice. I hope that Hyperion can find enough material to produce a second ‘composed by Victor de Sabata’ album.

Ian Lace

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