C1943. TAKASHI ASAHINA Cond. Tokyo S.O.: Symphony #9 in d (Bruckner; Nowak Edition). (Canada) St Laurent Studio YSL T-1246, Live Performance, 16 March, 1991, Orchard Hall, Tokyo. [If ever there was a true 'sleeper', this monumental performance and great recording suffice as contender, an absolute revelation! Yves St Laurent has done himself proud with this glorious issue!] Transfers by Yves St Laurent.
“It is very welcome news that St. Laurent Studio has undertaken a series devoted to the legendary Japanese conductor Takashi Asahina (1908–2001), because his veneration at home is matched by neglect abroad. I will arrive at this, his best recording of the Bruckner Ninth, from Tokyo in 1991(there are eight Asahina Ninths all told, according to the invaluable website abruckner.com), but it requites a little background to fully grasp Asahina’s cultural stature. After centuries of isolation, a modernized Japan had already begun to look Westward by the time he was born. One of the most remarkable cultural movements over the past century has been Asia’s avid hunger for Western classical music.
This yearning persisted beneath the surface of tremendous, often violent upheavals. It seems all but miraculous that Asahina, born in Tokyo as the illegitimate son of a prominent engineer, would wind up conducting the Berlin Philharmonic as a guest in the 1950s and the Chicago Symphony in 1996. He had learned the violin as a boy and played in school ensembles, but his college degrees were in law and philosophy. The turning point apparently came after the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931. Six years later Asahina arrived in China and was able to conduct professionally. After the war he returned home via Korea and in 1947 founded the orchestra that would evolve into the Osaka Philharmonic. He had a lifetime appointment, and during the Asahina era the orchestra was regarded the best in Japan, although he also performed with all the country’s major orchestras.
Whether it is exactly accurate or not, his love of Bruckner arose after a meeting with Wilhelm Furtwängler after the war, and ultimately Asahina became the only conductor to record three complete Bruckner cycles, in addition to many individual recordings. What blocked access to Western collectors, besides blinkered vision about Asians performing Western classical music, was the fact that Asahina recorded for Japanese labels that had limited distribution abroad. You had to be part of the small Asahina cult to appreciate how magnificent his conducting could be, and even then, compensation often had to be made for the quality of Japanese orchestral playing.
This release constitutes a major event because no compensation needs to be made. The Tokyo Symphony Orchestra plays with intensity and commitment, making any small errors or lack of sheen insignificant. The recorded sound is good stereo with a full dynamic range. Most importantly, at 82, Asahina brings decades of dedication to Bruckner at a time when his energy and ability to control the orchestra were fully intact
The first movement reveals how spellbinding Asahina is at his best. The moving line is beautifully phrased; orchestral tone is lustrous; and there are no intrusive manipulations. This is the art that conceals art, as natural and seemingly effortless as late Bruno Walter in his most glowing performances. Yet Asahina’s artistry is evident in a trait he shared with Furtwängler, his instinct for transitions. This is an instinct that can’t be taught ,and when it exists, as it does everywhere in this Bruckner Ninth, you feel the magic of an uninterrupted flow of inspiration. Possessed of his innate abilities, Asahina transcended cultural isolation, war, primitive orchestral conditions, and the lack of deep contact with the West until later in life.
I hasten to add that this is a strong, propulsive performance in the Scherzo, which is overwhelming, not through fierceness but through the rise and fall of intensity. The Bruckner Ninth cannot succeed fully without a great Adagio, and here Asahina is unerring. Without advance knowledge a listener would be hard pressed to tell that this isn’t Karajan, Tennstedt, Walter, or Giulini. I know a good many Asahina recordings thanks to my FANFARE colleague Henry Fogel, who championed the conductor when he was unknown in this country; Henry was the guiding force that brought Asahina to the Chicago Symphony as a guest conductor. Given the recordings I have heard, this 1991 Bruckner Ninth is one of the best, if not the very best, place to begin to experience Asahina’s art. I think the reader who has grasped its beauty and the background that led up to it will agree that a place in the Classical Hall of Fame is well deserved.
The present restoration by producer Yves St. Laurent is excellent.”
- Huntley Dent, FANFARE
“Takashi Asahina was loved by music fans for his strong and dignified style of conducting. He specialized in the works of Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner. He won the government’s Medal with Purple Ribbon in 1969, Person of Cultural Merit in 1989 and Order of Culture in 1994. He was also honored with the Japan Academy of Arts Award in 1976.
A Tokyo native, Asahina graduated from the Department of Law at Kyoto University and worked at railway company Hankyu Corp. for two years before launching his career as a conductor in 1936, despite having no formal education for the job. He used to boast to friends that he was probably the only conductor in the world who has operated a train. During wartime, Asahina held a series of performance tours in various parts of China controlled by Japanese forces. Immediately after returning to Japan in 1946, Asahina helped found the Kansai Philharmonic Orchestra, which became the Osaka Philharmonic Orchestra in 1947, and served as its executive conductor and music director up to his death at age 93.
Asahina remained active throughout his life and was invited twice to perform with the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra in 1996. His energetic performances gained popularity especially among younger generations in his final years. He complained of ill health after performing at Nagoya on Oct. 24 and was hospitalized at a Kobe hospital. Subsequent performances were canceled. He died on the very night of the Osaka Philharmonic Orchestra’s annual yearend performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, which he conducted more than 250 times during his career. On Sunday night, conductor Hiroshi Wakasugi took Asahina’s place for the orchestra’s performance.”
- THE JAPAN TIMES, 31 Dec., 2001