SEIJI OZAWA, 1935 – 2024: A TRIBUTE

The death was announced last week of the great Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa. He was 88. Decca Classics extends its condolences to his family. They have lost a husband, father and grandfather. The world of classical music has lost one of the last of the great conductors of the 20th century. 

Seiji Ozawa was a much-loved artist and will be sorely missed by audiences across the globe: a truly international figure who united East and West in his music-making. He recorded for Philips, DG and Decca for almost half a century and leaves an unparalleled legacy. Decca Classics Label Director Dominic Fyfe was his recording producer for 16 years from 2003 until his last recording in 2019. Here he looks back on Ozawa’s career and their work together in the studio:

Everyone called him Seiji.  He put me at ease from the first moment we met. And for a nervous young recording producer back in 2003, working with one of his childhood heroes, I needed putting at ease! As a teenager I had stood at the Proms in 1984 and watched Ozawa conduct Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. I could never have imagined, years later, that I would be sat in his dressing room with a score of Bruckner’s 7th Symphony about to work with him as a producer for the first time.

This was in Matsumoto, a city in the shadow of the Japan Alps and home of the Saito Kinen Festival. Hideo Saito was Ozawa’s first teacher, a cellist turned conductor who had studied with Emmanuel Feuermann in Berlin in the early 1930s. Saito Kinen means ‘in memory of Saito’ and the festival and its orchestra had been founded in 1984 to mark the tenth anniversary of Saito’s death. Uniquely it brought together Japanese musicians with their Western counterparts, a fusion of East and West which perfectly mirrored Ozawa’s long career across three continents. These hand-picked players included members of orchestras Ozawa had led from Toronto and San Francisco, New York and Chicago, as well as Boston, Berlin and Vienna. The sound and style of the orchestra was distilled from every drop of experience Ozawa had gained after years at the pinnacle of his profession. But there was another dimension which distinguished this group of players beyond their incredible corporate virtuosity: their love for Seiji. All of them were there by choice and came back year after year, whether they were players like Vic Firth (timpanist of the Boston Symphony), Karl Leister (solo clarinet of the Berlin Philharmonic) or the youngest Japanese student from one of Seiji’s educational academies. Whatever their language or culture they were all united by a love of playing for Seiji and expressing that love through music. I had never seen or heard anything like it.

Seiji knew the craft of conducting better than anyone. A former solo cellist of the Berlin Philharmonic once told me that Ozawa was perhaps the most naturally gifted of all the post-war generation of conductors – and he had seen them all. After winning the Koussevitzky Prize in Tanglewood (where he encountered Munch and Monteux) Ozawa went on to study with Karajan in Berlin and became Bernstein’s assistant conductor at the New York Philharmonic in 1961. He then swept through North America in the 1960s & 70s wearing white roll necks, beads and a Beatles haircut. It is hard today to imagine just how modern he must have seemed. The list of his predecessors at the orchestras he led perhaps gives a clue: Walter Susskind in Toronto, Josef Krips in San Francisco, William Steinberg in Boston. Audiences and orchestras must have thought Ozawa had arrived from another world.

Ozawa was a prolific recording artist with orchestras in Europe, the United States and Japan. He had an almost unrivalled breadth of repertoire and always conducted from memory, whether it was a Mozart symphony or single-handedly leading the massed forces of Britten’s War Requiem. His career in the studio spanned 57 years, from his debut on record in New York in 1962 until his last recording in Japan in 2019. He recorded for all the major labels but most extensively for Philips, DG and latterly Decca Classics. I was his producer for the last 16 of those years and together we made almost 20 albums together, including the 2015 GRAMMY Award-winning Ravel L’enfant et les sortilèges & Shéhérazade and in 2016 the winner of the Gold Medal of the Japanese Record Academy for the recording of Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle. Seiji was a supreme accompanist. In the recording of Shéhérazade with Susan Graham I remember how he never once took his eyes off her, anticipating every breath and balancing the orchestra perfectly with his hands alone.

Both of these recordings were made live. Like his great teachers and mentors, Karajan and Bernstein, almost all of Ozawa’s recordings in the latter years of his life were made at live performances. His deep connection with audiences was captured unforgettably at a series of concerts at Carnegie Hall in New York City in December 2010. By then the once supremely athletic Ozawa had survived oesophageal cancer and debilitating sciatica, compounded in that deep winter in New York by a bout of pneumonia. None of us knew whether he would conduct or not. On stage the Saito Kinen Orchestra were on the edge of their seats. At the first concert I remember seeing Alan Gilbert backstage in full concert dress, ready to go on at a moment’s notice if Ozawa felt unable. But he did conduct and anyone who saw him battle his way triumphantly through Brahms’ 1st Symphony will be unlikely to forget it. The ovation at the end was the most volcanic I have ever seen, matched on the following nights by performances of Britten’s War Requiem and Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. All of them were captured on record and released by Decca Classics in Japan in 2011.

Ozawa vividly describes those recordings in his book of conversations with Haruki Murakami ‘Absolutely on Music’ published in English translation in 2016. I often wished I had had a microphone to record our conversations at playbacks, especially in his years at the Vienna State Opera when we would have a whole evening to listen to the edit of a new recording and dine afterwards. In conversation he was generous and gregarious but as a conductor he once said: “My one rule is to avoid words”. Riccardo Chailly remembers rehearsals in Milan in 1970 for Mahler’s 8th symphony with Ozawa and the Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala. Ozawa spoke not one word of Italian. Everything was accomplished through gesture: a masterclass in the choreography of conducting. One of my lasting memories of him is, in fact, one of the first. On that 2003 recording of Bruckner’s 7th there was a passage in the finale which had never been ideally together. Seiji noted it and said: “I will make them watch me”. Without a word being said it was fixed at that night’s performance. This, I thought, is what conducting is all about.

Great conductors have often been fortunate in being remembered by their final recordings: one thinks of Karajan in Bruckner’s 8th or Bruno Walter in Mahler’s 9th. For Seiji it was the music of Beethoven and a performance of the 2nd Piano Concerto with the Mito Chamber Orchestra and his lifelong friend Martha Argerich. Recorded in May 2019 they brought out the best in each other, sounding, as one critic put it, like a pair of teenagers: the music fizzes with youthful effervescence but can also make time stand still, as on the final page of the sublime Adagio slow movement. All of us present knew the supreme physical challenge Seiji faced to be on the podium but, once there, the years fell away and that trademark grace and energy, first spotted by Charles Munch at the Besançon Competition 60 years earlier, flowed beautifully in every bar.

Dominic Fyfe

Label Director

DECCA Classics