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Seiji Ozawa is used to bad reviews. In conversation with the novelist Haruki Muramaki, he does not shy away from discussing the times he was consistently lambasted by critics in Vienna, Salzburg and Berlin at the start of his career. But he doesn’t acknowledge the various accusations that his 29-year tenure at the Boston Symphony Orchestra reduced the ensemble’s sound to chronic dullness.

I mention that to begin with for a few reasons. First because the main problem with this book is that Ozawa’s contributions to it are far less interesting and far more banal than Murakami’s. Second because my biggest criticism of Murakami is that he has Ozawa on a pedestal and rarely looks at the bigger picture – either critical or, in more general terms, orchestral.

Murakami’s grasp of music is frequently both astonishing and inspiring. He has incredible ears and is able to distinguish and annunciate the smallest differences in interpretations (fascinating when the two men sit down to listen to Ozawa’s recordings). When Murakami writes in prose, he does so with the quick charm and alluring detail that fans of his novels will relish. But he gets little back from Ozawa (often the discourse consists of Murakami making an astute observation followed by Ozawa half-heartedly agreeing with him; ‘you’re probably right’) and his terms of reference, though impressively wide in some respects, are too confined to Ozawa’s career.

Sometimes, Absolutely on Music can get bogged down in detail; the discussion on how Brahms instructs two horns to play one phrase in relay in the first symphony goes on forever, chasing its own tale. At others, it can seem like a string of nostalgic reminiscences from the conductor that can be strikingly insightful and frank on the one hand (mostly on interpreting Mahler and on his working with Bernstein and Karajan) but irritatingly gauche on the other (he has a habit of over-stating how much people like him; and in a book titled ‘conversations’ there is only one instance of Ozawa asking Murakami a direct, non-reactive question). Murakami engages the reader far more in this sporadically worthwhile book. What I ‘absolutely’ want now is a meaty tome on music from Murakami, and on his own.

ANDREW MELLOR Read the full review on Agora Classica

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