Seiji Ozawa, the eminent Japanese conductor whose death, at 88, was announced on Friday, was a force at the podium. He toured the world’s leading concert halls and helped break barriers for Asian classical musicians.
He also left behind an extensive and varied discography: recordings of warhorses like Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which he led for 29 years, as well as of more obscure pieces, such as Henri Dutilleux’s “The Shadows of Time.” While his live performances sometimes drew mixed reactions from critics, many of his recordings — from Boston, Berlin, Japan and elsewhere — are considered standards.
“Even at my age, you change,” Ozawa, then in his 70s, told the author Haruki Murakami. “And practical experience keeps you changing. This may be one of the distinguishing features of the conductor’s profession: The work itself changes you.”
Here are eight albums that offer an introduction to his music.
Berlioz: ‘Symphonie Fantastique’
Ozawa often spoke about feeling liberation in the music of Berlioz. “His music is crazy!” he once said. “Sometimes I don’t know what’s going on, either. Which may be why his music is suited to being performed by an Asian conductor. I can do what I want with it.” That freewheeling approach can be heard in this recording of “Symphonie Fantastique” with the Saito Kinen Orchestra, which he helped found in Japan in 1984.
Fauré: ‘Pelléas et Mélisande’
After taking the reins in Boston, in 1973, Ozawa set out to perform more French music, inspired by one of his predecessors, Charles Munch. Ozawa became a skilled interpreter, conducting the complete works of Ravel and Debussy during his tenure. Several albums from this period are acclaimed, including this recording of Fauré’s opera “Pelléas et Mélisande,” in which his flair for conjuring fresh, flowing sound is on display.
Liszt: Piano Concertos and ‘Totentanz’
During his time in Boston, Ozawa became close with the pianist Krystian Zimerman, going as far as to encourage Zimerman to buy a home in Massachusetts. With the Boston Symphony, the two made this recording of Liszt’s piano concertos, as well as “Totentanz,” a danse macabre for piano and orchestra, delivering an intense, ferociously rhapsodic account.
Mahler: Symphony No. 1
Ozawa developed a love for Mahler while working as an assistant conductor under Leonard Bernstein at the New York Philharmonic, beginning in 1961. Bernstein helped popularize Mahler’s works at a time when his music was not frequently performed in the United States. Ozawa once recalled being startled as he reviewed the composer’s scores for the first time. “It was a huge shock for me,” he said. “Until then I never even knew music like that existed.” When Ozawa got to Boston, he made a point of performing and recording more of the composer’s works, including this reading of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1.
Tchaikovsky: ‘Swan Lake’
Ozawa garnered accolades for his performances of ballet music, including this lush recording of Tchaikovsky’s classic “Swan Lake” with the Boston Symphony. Here, he is a maestro in full command, delivering a crisp and graceful interpretation. Ozawa’s fondness for dance music led him to record other ballet scores, including well-regarded accounts of Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” and Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloé.”
Henri Dutilleux: ‘The Shadows of Time’
Ozawa championed some contemporary composers, including Dutilleux, known for his expressive orchestral music. “The Shadows of Time,” a meditation on grief and loss, had its premiere under Ozawa in Boston in 1997. When the work came to Carnegie Hall for its New York premiere, a review in The New York Times said that the performance “challenged listeners to remember the last time they had left a concert by a major American orchestra convinced that a freshly minted work was the highlight of the program.”
Stravinsky: ‘The Rite of Spring’
Ozawa knew Stravinsky and felt a special connection to his music, especially the composer’s fierce and mysterious “The Rite of Spring.” Here, his youthful energy mirrors the power and fury of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Messiaen: ‘Saint François d’Assise’
Ozawa came late to opera. He had not conducted any standard repertoire until he became the music director of the Toronto Symphony in 1965. But he developed an affinity for the genre, and, in 1983, he led the world premiere of Messiaen’s “Saint François d’Assise” in Paris. Critics praised his musicality. “Seiji Ozawa maintained remarkable control over his huge forces,” John Rockwell wrote in The Times, “which spilled out of the pit onto special platforms and up into the side boxes.”
David Allen contributed reporting.