Symphony No. 8 in G, Op. 88 [36:50]
The Noon-Day Witch, Op. 108 [13:00]
Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95, From the New World [45:10]
In Nature’s Realm, Op. 91 [14:31]
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Seiji Ozawa
rec. live, May 1991 (Opp. 91, 95), April 1992 (Opp. 88, 108), Großer
Saal, Musikverein, Vienna
NEWTON CLASSICS 8802003 [49:50 + 59:40]
What ever happened to Seiji Ozawa? Since taking over the Vienna
State Opera in 2002 (a job which ends this year), Ozawa has
nearly fallen off the map of new recordings. Over the last eight
years, I can find only a handful of new Ozawa albums, most of
them collaborations with young pianists like Yundi Li (Prokofiev
and Ravel concertos), as well as a Takemitsu disc and a small
collection of concert DVDs. A quick search of MusicWeb International
finds little trace of the conductor over the last few years.
Ozawa, who turns 75 at the beginning of September, is still
featured in many reissues, but his patience for, or marketability
in, the recording process appears to have faded.
Thus the fact that these recordings of Dvořák’s
last two symphonies, featuring the Vienna Philharmonic, are
in fact live tapings from 1991 and 1992. The Eighth, from April
of the latter year, is given a good performance, full of pastoral
ambience and terrific wind playing. Ozawa does not really emphasize
the sharp rhythms of the symphony, or go out of his way to make
them seem quirky. Quirky, sharp rhythms do not have to be fast,
by the way: a few years ago, I would have listened to this recording
of the scherzo and wished it were faster, but now I wish it
What Ozawa does, by contrast, is to make the music very attractive.
The Vienna Philharmonic are natural allies; the first movement
is gorgeous and bucolic, the second highlighted by a very subtly
pretty flute-clarinet duet, and the finale is fast from start
to finish (occasionally too much so) with excellent playing
by all. There are about fifteen seconds of applause.
The first disc also includes a brisk performance of the superb
symphonic poem The Noon-Day Witch. The music is performed
with great energy and clarity (always a winning combination),
and the Viennese orchestra shines as usual. At 4:21 one can
hear a motif played on cellos which will reappear prominently
in The Wild Dove. What is missing is the element of grotesquerie
or sheer storytelling panache brought to this music by a conductor
like Charles Mackerras. The superb orchestration is rendered
beautifully, but not indulgently; the entrance of the witch
is eerily done by the violins, but at a tempo which seems curt.
The recorded sound, on the other hand, is terrific, giving prominence
to the percussion which becomes thrilling at the coda. This
time there is no applause.
The Ninth Symphony continues the trend from the first disc:
Ozawa makes no obvious mistakes but creates no singular insights
either, and the Vienna Philharmonic play wonderfully. I should
single out for praise the scherzo, given with special fervor,
and for criticism the opening, on which there are a few seconds
of applause while Ozawa walks onstage. Why were these preserved
In Nature’s Realm gets the best performance of
the set; the beauty of the Vienna Philharmonic and the swifter-than-usual
tempi from Ozawa making the piece sound fresh, breezy, and bright.
I can hear highlighted all sorts of orchestral detail which
I had not heard before (from Kubelík, Ančerl, Gunzenhauser,
or Netopil), like the violin pizzicatos in the fifth minute,
or the excited trumpets at 9:15.
I am left with the conclusion that this is a set recorded very
well, played very well, and conducted without error, which nevertheless
fails to rise (except in the case of In Nature’s Realm)
to the very best of the competition. Otmar Suitner’s Staatskapelle
Berlin reading remains my favorite Eighth, and Kubelik, Szell,
and Mackerras are among the names I’d mention for the
Ninth. Ozawa’s readings, though, are respectable and enjoyable,
with admirable dedication to presenting the orchestration with
clarity, and this is certainly better than, say, the recent
Marin Alsop discs. Maybe the best thing about this set, though,
is the excellent booklet. After reading David Gutman’s
excellent essay, I feel like a much better-informed listener
to this music.