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Seiji Ozawa - The Complete Warner Recordings
rec. 1969-1998, various venues, ADD/DDD
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 613951 [25 CDs: c.23:00:00]

This box celebrates with a large tranche of the conducting heritage of the Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa (b. 1935). Warner in this way mark his eightieth birthday which falls in September 2015. It's all for the orchestra; extravagant and late-romantic in many cases and with a generous infusion of twentieth century pieces. There's no Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart or Haydn and no Bruckner or Mahler.

This is very much less than a review and more of a series of notes and impressions based on a selective listen. I have random-sampled these discs: no more than that.

Huge sets or 'editions' have become an increasingly numerous presence. Retrospectives of this or that conductor or instrumentalist tend to dominate although there are composer-specific boxes as well. The attraction is obvious and comes in various aspects: low cost per CD; nostalgia for a golden or at least silvery age; the potency of these substantial boxes as presents; the inducement to explore and the opportunity to revive commercially dormant parts of the archives. The downsides are duplication for many long-time collectors and often cut-down or nil liner-notes or texts and perhaps the reduced likelihood of the discs being played if they are housed in a 'massive' case. In some cases they may not fit conveniently on your shelves.

Warner supply, in English, French and German languages, a scene-setter essay by Rémy Louis. It's fairly extensive and spreads across four pages. Louis surveys Ozawa's history and brings us up to date. He reminds us that following decades of work Ozawa had to reduce his conducting from 2010 after he was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus. It has been a while since audiences last saw him in action on the podium.

Many may recall Ozawa with respect and affection as the conductor of an early (not the earliest) recording of Messiaen's Turangalîla dating from 1968 (review). DG deployed him in a Prokofiev symphony cycle (review). Neither of those are here, being respectively BMG and DG products; do I sense another box coming from Universal? We have certainly seen that complementary tendency with Giulini, Karajan and Stokowski.

Looking through the flip-lid cardboard box of this set shows at least one advantage of the Warner combine and its industry mergers. Getting all these recordings together in one place from different labels might otherwise have been a task too far.

With the box opened you are confronted with a sheaf of CDs in card envelopes. Each envelope reproduces the original Erato and EMI LP front sleeves. You do not get photo-reduced sleeve-notes. They would in any event have been a trial to read even with a magnifying glass.

The themes in Ozawa's recorded profile are underlined. Russian music is one; some probably unfamiliar modern music another. On the Russian front we have two Firebirds (Paris, 1972 and Boston, 1983) and a Béroff collection of Stravinsky's music for piano and orchestra. There's plenty of Tchaikovsky too. Add to this works by Rimsky, Borodin, Prokofiev and Shostakovich. In the 'modern' category we get pieces by Takemitsu, Foss, Kim and Starer. French music is addressed with Saint-Saëns and Bizet, Gagneux and Dutilleux. National themes tend to tie in with Ozawa's years with various orchestras. At least they do in the case of the Orchestre National de France.

His tenure with various world-class orchestras shows through: Boston, Chicago, Paris, Berlin. Guest sessions with the LPO, Japan Phil and Philharmonia also appear. Other strands include soloists. There are three discs each with Rostropovich and Perlman. Ozawa had single discs in this series with Mutter, Spivakov, Masuko Ushioda, Béroff and two with Weissenberg.

Timings, which are perhaps less of an issue in a box of this scale, range across the LP duration - generally between 45 and 60 minutes, although there are a couple of discs well below this: the Takemitsu is at 38:28 and the last one: Dutilleux, 21:48 including a minute of applause. If issued singly, playing duration would have been an issue with reviewers and purchasers perhaps excepting outright devotees. A number of companies including Decca-Universal have supplemented ex-LP playing times by adding recordings to bring CD playing times up above the 70 minute level; look at the various Mercury Living Presence, Decca Sound and Phase Four boxes. Not here.

We get a mix of analogue and digital recordings. Thus the ten CDs from the 1970s - with one from 1969 - are all ADD. The remainder are all DDD: 12 from the 1980s and three from the 1990s with the most recent one (Dutilleux) from 1997.

Nicely insouciant and resonantly recorded, the Polovtsian Dances and Scheherazade are heard from sessions in the cavernous acoustic of the Medinah Temple in Chicago. The sound when loud is rather vaguely defined by comparison with the current best but it is still quite listenable. This is the earliest recording and is from 1969. The Bartók Concerto for Orchestra, despite some imaginative touches early on resolves into a scramble at the end. It's exciting but .... The Janacek Sinfonietta majors on brilliance and the spectacular. Over to the Orchestre de Paris for a very romantic and exciting Prokofiev Third Piano Concerto. The sound here is warm and cosy. That slight claustrophobia clears for the Ravel G major but the orchestra appears distant. I have been listening recently to the contrastingly recorded 1958 Michelangeli version of the Ravel from EMI and this has emphasised the effect. There's a slightly cloudy warmth about the Béroff Stravinsky disc where more cool and clarity would have yielded dividends.

The Tchaikovsky Fourth from the same orchestra was also done in the Salle Wagram but now the sound is splendid. The pizzicato third movement is fairly slow - no Mravinsky gabble here but excitement is at a lower setting too. This is saved for the outer movements which have a good quotient of crash and rush. More Tchaikovsky can be found on CD 18; this time with the Berlin Phil in 1984. Thunder and lightning abound for 1812 and we get some cavernous bass-defiant cannon shots to loosen the fillings and the cement. I have heard more apocalyptic accounts of Francesca da Rimini than this from Ozawa — from Ovchinnikov, Ahronovitch and Mravinsky for a start — but he saves the passion and the black powder for the final five minutes. Even so it's loud and effective rather than eruptive ... still less, molten. CD 19 gives us a very good indeed Pathétique from Boston in 1986.

Also from 1986 the Rostropovich Rococo Variations are notably smooth and tender. The Dvořák Cello Concerto with Rostropovich is engaging and the recording achieves a satisfying large concert-hall effect although some critics do not rate this interpretation. Full of rhythmic grit comes the Prokofiev Symphony-Concerto although the LSO sound a little undernourished at full stretch in London's lively Henry Wood Hall. This is a fine performance and had me making links between this work and the same composer's Sixth Symphony. Speaking of grit, try Ozawa and Rostropovich in Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 1. Mind you if you like abrasion in this work then go back to a version that as far as I know has appeared only once on CD. Raw and glaring though it is, try Mikhail Khomitser with the Moscow RSO and Rozhdestvensky (RCA Classics Navigator 74321-29254-2, 1995).

CD 24, also a Rostropovich disc takes us to the Triptyque of Renaud Gagneux (b.1947). This runs to 17:41 and is in three movements. The music is dramatic, poetic and lucidly orchestrated. After this example I would look out for more Gagneux. The Shchedrin Sotto Voce concerto is a very substantial piece running to almost 38 minutes across four movements. This disc was also issued in 2008 with the Gagneux as part of a Warner box of Rostropovich recordings (review). The Shchedrin exists in at least one other recording on Ondine where the soloist is Marko Ylönen.

There are two complete Firebirds here. The one from Orchestre de Paris is full of delicious orchestral effects. This is a work that could have been designed for Ozawa. He is joined by Suvi Raj Grubb at the control table; he also presided for the Boston Firebird. Even so, in both cases the effect falls short of the most imaginative Firebird I know in terms of both interpretation and sound: that by Dorati and the LSO (Mercury) although Ozawa's two versions sound not quite as steely as the Dorati.

Back to the Salle Wagram for no fewer than two Bizet discs. This venue always warms the sound-picture a couple of degrees. Ozawa is there with the Orchestre National de France and he lays into the music with a will. It's not without charm but this is hard-muscled, fast tempo and big-boned Bizet - Beethovenian stuff. Patrie sounds like a violent echo of Egmont. Drama is piled high on drama for the Carmen suites although the Entr'acte to Act III chills out, even if the pulse is still not slow. That same undertow of urgency can be felt in the Habañera. I have heard more poetic readings of L'Arlésienne suites, from Beecham and Frémaux for a start, but if you like your Bizet big and burly this will please. It often felt rather heartless. The Saint-Saëns disc (CD20) again takes us to Salle Wagram though Philippe Lefèbvre is mixed in at the grand organ, Chartres Cathedral. Here the warmth and the shatteringly colossal feeling of the acoustic work very well with the symphony. I am not completely won round though and would still turn to the 1970s Frémaux/CBSO on EMI (review).

The Gershwin disc from 1983 teams Ozawa up with Weissenberg again. This time they are with the Berlin Phil who lack the last detail in playful jazzy sleaze. Even so they do a very respectable job across these three works. I notice that there is no Piano Concerto although we do get the less common Catfish Row Suite. A nice open sound-picture is achieved with lots of punch.

Unusually Ushioda's Sibelius and Bruch first came out in the UK on HMV Concert Classics at mid-price. Her Sibelius is pretty gutsy, tending more towards Oistrakh than Mullova or Chung. The Bruch is nice rather than outstanding. Ushioda died in Boston aged 71 in 2013. We turn now to a violinist who achieved greater celebrity. Perlman sweeps us through the surprisingly poetic Slavonic-stormy pages of the Wieniawski concertos. There are showy moments but Ozawa and his soloist have us thinking of introspection more often. There's a lovely recording by Suvi Raj Grubb. Spivakov's Tchaikovsky is exciting and very cleanly recorded at Abbey Road by John Willan. The filler - Capriccio Italien - with wide-ranging sound pulls no punches either but you have to be in the right mood for this piece. Mutter's Lalo was once again taken down in the Salle Wagram in 1984. As in his Bizet, Ozawa takes a monumental line. At times there is cloudiness in the sound although Mutter's voice emerges with fine definition, if not as imperiously as in the image secured for her by Erato some years later in Washington for the Glazunov/Prokofiev disc recently reissued by Warner. In Zigeunerweisen the orchestra miss not a beat in keeping up with the death-defying Mutter express. This is lovely playing if discreetly recessed.

Perlman and Ozawa turned to the single movement Violin Concerto by Earl Kim (1920-1998) in 1983 in Boston. This is inventive music yet cataclysmic across what amounts to a 22-minute essay in angularity and clarity. It would have been preferable for the work to have been presented with separate tracks for parts I and II. The Kim is matched, without any obvious attempt at repertoire sweetening, with the 1981 Violin Concerto by Robert Starer (1924-2001). The Violin Concerto's middle movement is more moodily lyrical. I recall commenting on this aspect of Starer's creative impulse in reviewing his Viola Concerto. He has a gift for succulent tunes. If you move from CD16 to CD23 you find three twentieth-century American pieces for violin and orchestra. Bernstein's Serenade flies along and is movingly contemplative in the Pausanius and Agathon movements. What may well have been the model for the Bernstein work follows in a lushly juicy version: Barber's Violin Concerto. This disc overall reminded me of the great work Boston did with Michael Tilson Thomas and Paul Zukofsky in 1970 when they recorded for DG the William Schuman Violin Concerto and Piston Second Symphony. It's a shame that they did not do more. It’s glorious. If only they had done Roy Harris Seventh Symphony but it remains an 'if only'. To the task in hand: This recording for Perlman has plenty of depth and a most propulsive and pleasing rasp in the final Presto. Lukas Foss's poetic and kinetically flickering American Pieces recall Copland's Tender Land mixed with distant echoes of Satie.

All credit to Ozawa for taking on contemporary repertoire. The Maki Ishii (1936-2003) piece for gagaku and orchestra tends towards the shrill and cataclysmic with metallic clashes and grumbling bass activity. It ends with a murmur. Takemitsu's Cassiopeia for percussion and orchestra is also inventive and has more of a feeling of connection, moment to moment, rather than the episodic impulsive stuff secured by Ishii. The spatial effects in the Takemitsu are striking. All credit to Peter Andry for the recording sessions in Japan in 1971.

Dutilleux’s The Shadows of Time is on the 22-minute CD25. This is in five separately tracked sections. It is a potently imaginative work with references to The Tempest's Ariel and to Anne Frank, even if the Warner listing does call her 'Anne Franck'. Again Ozawa is with the Bostonians - an orchestra of which he was Music Director for 29 seasons.

This is an intriguing set with its metaphorical shelves full of brilliance and provocation. If we get the occasional misfire along the way then that is to be expected.

Rob Barnett

Contents List
CD 1
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)
Scheherazade, Symphonic suite after "A thousand and One Nights", Op.35
Alexander Borodin (1833-1887)
Polovtsian Dances, from Prince Igor (compl. and orch. Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra

CD 2
Béla Bartók (1881-1945)
Concerto for Orchestra
Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967)
Dances of Galánta (unreleased on CD except in Japan)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra

CD 3
Witold Lutosŀawski (1913-1994)
Concerto for Orchestra
Leoš Janácek (1854-1928)
Sinfonietta
Chicago Symphony Orchestra

CD 4
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)
Piano Concerto N° 3 in C major, Op.26
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
Piano Concerto in G major
Alexis Weissenberg, piano / Orchestre de Paris

CD 5
Unreleased on CD except in Japan
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaïkovsky (1840-1893)
Symphony N° 4 in F minor, Op. 36
Orchestre de Paris

CD 6
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
Capriccio, for piano and orchestra (1929, revised version 1949)
Concerto for piano and wind instruments (1923/4, revised version 1950)
Mouvements, for piano and orchestra
Michel Béroff, piano / Orchestre de Paris

CD 7
Unreleased on CD except in Japan. Issued on EMI LP on Concert Classics
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.47
Max Bruch (1838-1920)
Violin Concerto N° 1 in G minor, Op.26
Masuko Ushioda, violin / Japan Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra

CD 8
Unreleased on CD except in Japan
Maki Ishii (1936-2003)
So-Gu II, for Gagaku and orchestra
Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996)
Cassiopeia, for percussion and orchestra
Gagaku Ensemble (1) Stomu Yamashta, percussion (2) / Japan Philharmonic Orchestra

CD 9
Henryk Wieniawski (1835-1880)
Violin Concerto N° 1 in F sharp minor, Op.14
Violin Concerto N° 2 in D minor, Op.22
Itzhak Perlman, violin / London Philharmonic Orchestra

CD 10
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
The Firebird, complete ballet
Orchestre de Paris

CD 11
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Violin Concerto in D, Op.35
Capriccio italien, Op.45
Vladimir Spivakov, violin / Philharmonia Orchestra

CD 12
Georges Bizet (1838-1875)
Symphony in C
Patrie, Dramatic Overture Op. 19
Jeux d'enfants, Petite Suite Op. 22
Michel Croquenoy, oboe (Symphony II) / Orchestre National de France

CD 13
Georges Bizet (1838-1875)
Carmen
Suite N° 1
Suite N° 2
L'Arlésienne
Suite N° 1
Suite N° 2
Orchestre National de France

CD 14
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
The Firebird, complete ballet
Boston Symphony Orchestra

CD 15
George Gershwin (1898-1937)
Rhapsody in Blue
Variations on I Got Rhythm
Catfish Row, Symphonic Suite from Porgy and Bess
Alexis Weissenberg, piano, Karl Leister, clarinet
Berliner Philharmoniker

CD 16
Earl Kim (1920-1998)
Violin Concerto
Robert Starer (1924-2001)
Violin Concerto
Itzhak Perlman, violin
Boston Symphony Orchestra

CD 17
Edouard Lalo (1823-1892)
Symphonie espagnole, for violin and orchestra, Op.21
Pablo de Sarasate (1844-1908)
Zigeunerweisen, for violin and orchestra, Op.20
Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin
Orchestre National de France

CD 18
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Ouverture solennelle "1812", Op.49
Marche slave, Op.31
Eugene Onegin, Op.24: Polonaise
Francesca da Rimini, Orchestral Fantasia after Dante
Berliner Philharmoniker

CD 19
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Symphony N° 6 in B minor Pathétique, Op.74
Boston Symphony Orchestra

CD 20
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)
Symphony N° 3 in C minor, Op.78*
Phaéton, Symphonic Poem Op.39
Le Rouet d'Omphale, Symphonic Poem Op.31
*Philippe Lefèbvre, grandes orgues de la cathédrale de Chartres
Orchestre National de France

CD 21
Antonin Dvořák (1841-1904)
Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaïkovsky (1840-1893)
Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op. 33
Mstislav Rostropovich, cello
Boston Symphony Orchestra

CD 22
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)
Symphony-Concerto for Cello in E minor, Op.125
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)
Cello Concerto N° 1 in E flat major, Op. 107
Mstislav Rostropovich, cello, Hugh Seenan, horn
London Symphony Orchestra

CD 23
Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)
Serenade (After Plato: Symposium), for violin, harp, percussion and strings
Samuel Barber (1910-1981)
Violin Concerto, op.14
Lukas Foss (1922-2009)
Three American Pieces for violin and orchestra
Itzhak Perlman, violin
Boston Symphony Orchestra

CD 24
Renaud Gagneux (b.1947)
Triptyque, for cello and orchestra
Rodion Shchedrin (b.1932)
Sotto voce, for cello and orchestra
Mstislav Rostropovich, cello
London Symphony Orchestra

CD 25
Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013)
The Shadows of Time
Children's voices: Joel Esher, Rachel Plotkin, Jordan Swaim
Boston Symphony Orchestra

 

 




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