De Sabata was Director and Chief Conductor of La Scala Opera House, Milan, Italy, and he was undoubtedly the finest conductor I have ever encountered. I regarded him so highly that I named my boat after him. He came to the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1946.
In appearance he was of moderate height, bald, with a fringe of white hair, walked with a limp, a legacy of the poliomyelitis that had struck him in his youth and although he was only fifty – three he looked considerably older. He was aristocratic-looking and reminded me of a Roman Senator.
He had a prodigious memory and never carried a musical score. Sometimes he would stop and say ‘Gentlemen, there is a mistake in bar number—’ His knowledge of instruments, too, was astounding. One day we were recording Beethoven’s Second Symphony. In the Scherzo there is a difficult passage for the double basses. He looked over to us and said, ‘Contrabassi, you can play that in one position, why don’t you?’
On another occasion the principal cellist, Boris Rickelman, told him that one passage written for the ‘cello was impossible to play. He replied ‘Do you think so Mr. Rickelman? Give me your ‘cello and I will show you.’ De Sabata picked up the cello, sat down and played the passage perfectly.
Best of all was when Charlie Gregory, the first French horn also told de Sabata that a passage was unplayable. De Sabata replied ‘Do you think so Mr. Gregory? Give me your instrument and I will show you.’ De Sabata picked up the horn and played it perfectly.
De Sabata’s rare recordings have been digitalized and re-issued. In the programme notes to one CD, Felix Apprahamian whom I knew well, a noted musicologist and also writer for the London “Times” was present when these events occurred, and recounted them and added, ‘I suppose they (the London Philharmonic and de Sabata) are all dead by now’, so I wrote to him and told him I was alive and well and living in British Columbia, Canada. He never replied, but I heard that he was very ill and passed away not long afterwards.
When de Sabata retired he devoted his time to solving mathematical problems. He was very widely read and could quote Shakespeare and Dickens, Dante and Tasso etc. etc.
When we were performing Ravel’s opera “L’Enfant et les Sortilèges’, which de Sabata had premiéred, a French choir was brought over from Paris and de Sabata spent much time correcting their pronunciation!