Seiji Ozawa began his career with the highest credentials: assistant to Bernstein in New York, and mentored by Karajan. His first major conducting post was in Toronto. In San Francisco he epitomised the hip, flower-power zeitgeist, then brought the beads and skivvies to Boston where he led the orchestra from 1973 to 2002. He guest conducted frequently in Vienna and Berlin, and in 1992 set up the Saito Kinen Orchestra in his native Japan. Since 2010, illness has curtailed his activities.
As a recording artist (primarily for Philips) Ozawa was never extravagantly lauded, but neither was his work as divisive as some. Perhaps this is because his sound is not particularly identifiable (like Karajan) or single-minded (like Boulez). Despite this he produced some of the top recommended recordings, such as a full-blooded Orff Carmina Burana (with Gruberová and the Berlin PO) and a compelling Schoenberg Gurrelieder (with Norman and Troyanos). Both are included, as is his complete Mahler symphony cycle. While interpretatively middle-of-the-road, Ozawa’s Mahler is enjoyable because of the Boston sound, uniquely combining European richness of tone with American precision and clarity.
The Saito Kinen sonority is leaner, and their readings are on the cool side. Repertoire is wide-ranging, including Poulenc’s operatic comedy Les Mamelles de Tirésias (with Barbara Bonney), Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex and Rake’s Progress, and two discs of music by the Japanese colourist Takemitsu. My pick is their taut performance of Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. From Vienna we get live performances of Dvorák’s Eighth and Ninth Symphonies, and Richard Strauss tone poems.
The set also contains two Strauss operas: Elektra with Hildegard Behrens, and Salome with Jessye Norman, who sings ravishingly but sounds even less like a 16-year-old princess than she looks. No libretti or synopses.