Review: Seiji Ozawa’s complete recordings for DG
Friday, February 9, 2024
Andrew Farach-Colton seeks out the gems in a collection of a huge legacy from Seiji Ozawa
I was born and raised in Boston, so I feel as if I grew up with Seiji Ozawa, musically speaking. Yet reading Absolutely on Music (Harvill Secker: 2016, reviewed in November 2016), Haruki Murakami’s conversations with Ozawa, I was struck by a fresh revelation: the conductor is not a musician who’s driven by deep intellectual curiosity. Indeed, it’s the novelist who comes across as the more musically thoughtful – and voraciously so. There’s no question that Ozawa is immensely gifted but the interviews make clear that his approach to music is essentially of the nuts-and-bolts variety. This perspective kept coming back to me as I listened through this hefty box in which Ozawa’s overarching concern with sound – its clarity, colour and texture – is ever-apparent.
Ozawa began recording in the mid‑1960s and had made more than two dozen LPs before DG picked him up in 1972 (probably through Karajan, who was mentoring the young conductor in the first decades of his career). Many of the early recordings he made for EMI and RCA are dazzling in their vitality and sonic brilliance. In comparison, the three discs he made for DG with the San Francisco Symphony, where he served as Music Director (1970-77) before taking the reins in Boston, are rather less impressive. The orchestra sounds disciplined and alert but the performances feel oddly impatient. Best of the lot are the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story – perhaps reflecting the years Ozawa spent as Leonard Bernstein’s assistant in New York.
Ozawa had been purposely moving the orchestra from the distinctively French accent it had acquired under Monteux and Munch to a more Germanic style
Of course, the vast majority of the box is devoted to the 29 years he spent with the Boston Symphony. Indeed, of the 50 discs here, 36 were made with the orchestra – and, it should be noted, all of these were recently reissued as part of DG’s 57-CD BSO box (11/18). There are some spectacular examples of Ozawa’s technical prowess. The first disc they recorded for DG in early 1973, of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, features a memorably picturesque ‘Scène aux champs’, at once clear yet marvellously atmospheric and structurally cogent. There’s a Daphnis et Chloé from 1975 that abounds with exquisite woodwind solos and superfine string-playing. The ‘Danse guerrière’ in Part 2 is explosive yet wonderfully articulate, and ‘Daybreak’ is breathtakingly diaphanous – one can almost feel the dewy moisture in the morning mist. In Ives’s Fourth Symphony, recorded the following year, Ozawa fashions the thorny complexities of the symphony into a mesmeric sonic tapestry.
I can’t say there are very many wholly satisfying interpretations, however. Even the aforementioned performances have their disappointments. Berlioz’s ball scene is flat-footed. The Ives, though abstractly beautiful, entirely misses the music’s visionary and raucous sides. And although the orchestra manage Ozawa’s breakneck tempo in Daphnis’s final dance, it’s more of a sprint than a dance of wild, triumphant abandon.
The unqualified successes include two discs of Respighi. Ozawa’s Roman Trilogy is kaleidoscopic and surprisingly effective for being rendered so elegantly (particularly the gaudy Roman Festivals), while the three suites of Ancient Airs and Dances are irresistible in their combination of delicacy and sumptuousness. His light touch is ideally suited to Mendelssohn’s incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the enchantment is greatly enhanced by Dame Judi Dench’s English narration. A confidently relaxed 1976 recording of Rossini’s Semiramide Overture was new to me and one of many examples of the collective virtuosity of the BSO’s string section, although the whole of it is a frothy delight (note the wonderfully spongy brass‑playing).
Reading through old Gramophone reviews of Ozawa’s recordings it’s curious how the word ‘balletic’ frequently pops up. And, in fact, Ozawa can be a terrific ballet conductor. I retain great fondness for his stylish Swan Lake, for example. His recordings of large-scale dramatic works – like Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann or Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust and Roméo et Juliette in this set – often lack dramatic heft, but this Swan Lake conveys a vivid sense of the theatre. And Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet is nearly as fine. Ozawa takes a more restrained approach than, say, Maazel (Decca, 9/73), but his pacing feels spot‑on, and there’s a radiance to the playing (and recording) that’s quite special.
With such a fine Swan Lake, it’s perplexing that his Nutcracker is such a disappointment, the rhythms relaxed to the point of somnolence. On the other hand, the rhythms in the suite from the Offenbach-Rosenthal ballet Gaité parisienne are clutched so tightly, and the music driven so hard, that there’s no charm whatsoever. Sadly, there are quite a few such duds in this collection: a glutinous Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta; a luxurious but over-refined Sheherazade (far less exciting than either his youthful RCA recording with the Chicago Symphony or a later version for Philips with the VPO); a live account of the Franck Symphony that’s maddeningly nonchalant; and a heavy-handed programme of Fauré from 1986 where Ozawa seems to be trying to transform Fauré into a German composer.
In fact, Ozawa had been purposely moving the orchestra from the distinctively French accent it had acquired under Monteux and Munch to a more Germanic style. ‘Maybe three or four years after I stepped in’, Ozawa tells Murakami, ‘the sound changed – to the clear, concentrated German style I call “into the strings”. The players put the bow in deep. It makes for a heavier sound. Until then the Boston sound was always light and beautiful.’ Ozawa’s shift ultimately prompted the resignation of Joseph Silverstein, the orchestra’s silver-toned leader, in 1984. (André Previn called Silverstein ‘the greatest concertmaster in the world’, adding: ‘That’s not an opinion. That’s a fact.’)
Why, then, did DG have Ozawa record so much French music and so little German repertory? Of the many concerts I saw him conduct, one of the best was a Beethoven Seventh from the mid-’80s; its visceral sense of inevitability has stuck in my memory. Here, all we have are the aforementioned Mendelssohn incidental music, a muscular Beethoven Emperor Concerto with Christoph Eschenbach, two Brahms symphonies – a spacious, affectionate Second and a handsomely sleek First – and a stylish pair of Mozart wind concertos featuring BSO principals. The Mozart is a gem. I was reared on Harold Wright’s liquid, velvety tone and his playing in the Clarinet Concerto remains my touchstone
Ozawa recorded with Karajan’s Berlin Philharmonic, too, though what’s documented here is largely disappointing. He buffs Tchaikovsky’s Fourth and Fifth Symphonies to a high sheen; and while some fast tempos create superficial excitement, neither reading conveys even the barest hint of risk or danger. His genteel and prettified cycle of the seven Prokofiev symphonies completely mystifies me, aside from an ardently lyrical Fourth. A live performance of Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is tauter than his earlier studio version from Boston, and capped by an invigoratingly caffeinated finale. But while I admire Wolfram Christ’s magisterial playing in the coupled Viola Concerto, I find the pervasive aura of luxuriousness stylistically off-centre. How ironic, given Ozawa’s predilections, that one of the box’s most valuable recordings was made with the Orchestre National de France – a searing reading of Honegger’s Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher.
The remaining concerto recordings are yet another mixed bag. My colleague Bryce Morrison was wowed by Yundi Li in Prokofiev’s Second and Ravel’s G major (5/08). I find Li’s playing rather heartless, and it’s shocking to hear Ozawa and the Berliners scrambling to keep up in the Ravel’s finale. Anne-Sophie Mutter’s overwrought reading of the Bartók Second is also not to my taste but here, at least, Ozawa and the BSO maintain a firm grip. Perlman’s disc of Berg and Stravinsky is spoiled by crude spotlighting of the solo violin and soggy orchestral playing in the Stravinsky.
In the positive column, we have Trevor Pinnock’s fluent reading of Poulenc’s Concert champêtre accompanied by Ozawa with delectable point and lightness. Simon Preston’s electrifying account of the Organ Concerto is finer still, as the excitement comes without any sacrifice in the music’s Gothic splendour. And then we come to Krystian Zimerman. In the Liszt concertos, he and Ozawa’s shared concern for detail and refinement brings welcome freshness to these warhorses. And they’re perfectly in sync again in the first two Rachmaninov concertos – incendiary performances that sweep one along on an intoxicating musical journey. It’s a stunning disc and one that belongs in every serious collection.
I haven’t heard all of the recordings compiled in Philips’ 50-disc Ozawa box but I’ll go out on a limb and say it’s probably the more satisfying set, simply because it features the Saito Kinen Orchestra. Ozawa has done some of his best work with that hand-picked orchestra, and we get none of that here. Then again, if I were in charge at Universal, I’d ask Murakami – who seems to have given careful study to Ozawa’s complete discography – to curate a selection of the conductor’s finest recordings. I’ll wager it would give us the best of both worlds.
This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue of Gramophone. Never miss an issue – subscribe today