Victor de Sabata, his conducting style

At the first rehearsal he conducted with the London Philharmonic Orchestra he was ushered into the rehearsal hall and he limped onto the dais.  He then said ‘Good afternoon gentlemen, may we begin with the Dvorak?’  It was the “New World”  symphony.

He positioned himself very carefully, looked down at his feet making sure they were at a certain distance from the front of the podium, then he commenced, with no score in front of him – everything was from memory.  We went right through the symphony without stopping. After the intermission  he said ‘The Cockaigne Overture of Elgar, please’.  We went through that again without stopping.

At the end of the rehearsal I asked Victor Watson, the principal double bass (I was allowed to call him Victor by then) what he thought of de Sabata and he replied, ‘ He’s all right I suppose, just a typical Italian conductor’.

Next day however, de Sabata came into the rehearsal, mounted the podium and said ‘Gentlemen, yesterday I was getting to know the orchestra, now we rehearse’, and rehearse we certainly did.  He dissected the “New World” bar by bar, correcting mistakes in the printed parts that had been played countless times before, made sure that dotted notes were played properly and not like triplets, corrected notes not being given their full value, and encouraged real pianissimos and then fortes in contrast, these nuances gave a new life to any work he conducted.  He encouraged the woodwind to play together as a team.  Altogether the effect was stunning.  The “Cockaigne” Overture he made into a brilliant piece.  Hitherto everyone had thought of it as one of Elgar’s lesser works, but not so with de Sabata.

At the concert at the Royal Albert Hall the audience went wild.  He was recalled time and time again.

Ravel’s “Bolero” was played at the next concert.  The side drum starts very, very softly and the solo instruments come in one by one.  De Sabata beat a strict tempo for the side drum with his left hand, but with his right hand he made all kinds of rubato, he could beat independently with either hand.  I tried to do so in front of a mirror but failed.

He was at his best in such pieces as Berlioz’s overture “Roman Carnival” or his “Fantastic Symphony”… Moussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”, and much of Debussy and Ravel.  His “Ride of the Valkyries” that he always kept for an encore  brought the house down.

There was a certain personal magnetism, electricity, call it what you will that sent tiny shivers down one’s back, but the  crowning piece in his extensive repertoire was the Verdi “Requiem”.  In the Dies Irae he seemed to go wild, inciting the throng of trumpets that festooned all the rear boxes in the hall to blow their hearts out. The special huge bass drum he encouraged by boxing away in the air with his fists tightly clenched.  Naturally, the audience was very enthusiastic and recalled him many times.

At the end of that season the LPO crowned him on the stage with a laurel wreath and then put on a reception for him after the concert, the only one I can ever remember for any conductor’s performance.

When de Sabata left we were performing with lesser conductors such as Basil Cameron, who kept saying “Please, Please’ to the orchestra, who ignored him. After de Sabata everything was an anti-climax.


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