C1960. TAKASHI ASAHINA Cond. Osaka Phil.: 'Romantic' Symphony #4 in E-flat (1881 version, ed. Haas) (Bruckner). (Canada) St Laurent Studio YSL T-1247, Live Performance, 21-25 July, 1993, Festival Hall, Osaka. Transfers by Yves St Laurent.
“It takes something of an insider’s knowledge to fully appreciate this excellent release. Once anyone makes the discovery that Takashi Asahina occupies a significant place in the Bruckner tradition on disc, confusion is likely to set in - there is so much to keep track of. The website abruckner.com lists a dozen extant recordings alone of the Fourth Symphony under Asahina, made with five Japanese orchestras that are likely to be obscure except to specialists (the Japan Philharmonic, New Japan Philharmonic, NHK Symphony, Sapporo Symphony, and Osaka Philharmonic) plus a single U.S. ensemble, the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra. The recording dates range widely from 1976 to 2000. Regarded as Japan’s most revered conductor, Asahina’s prime years were after World War II, and despite a general Western indifference to Asian maestros, his reputation spread, and he was eventually invited to guest conduct some prestigious orchestras abroad, including the Chicago Symphony and Berlin Philharmonic.
I can’t boast of a wide acquaintance with Asahina’s discography, but that doesn’t lessen my admiration for this superb reading of the Bruckner Fourth symphony from 1993, the year he turned 85, leading his own Osaka Philharmonic. Immediately evident is the close affinity of orchestra and conductor; Asahina personally built the ensemble in his extraordinarily long tenure as music director in Osaka, 1947 to 2001. Newcomers will be impressed by how comfortable the orchestra sounds in Bruckner, showing no weakness in any section. The recorded sound is very good, reflecting the high standards of Japanese sound engineering.
But what we’re really here for is Asahina’s conducting, which is characterized, first and foremost, by its lyricism and naturalness. There’s a link between Bruckner’s symphonic style and Schubert’s that can easily be exaggerated, but if you focus on the repeated string figures of the kind that tires out the musicians in a work like the Schubert Symphony #9, the equivalent in Bruckner lends itself to mechanical rote repetition. Here, though, the string figures feel musically alive, which I attribute to Asahina. For once the slow movement conveys exactly what the composer’s marking means by Andante quasi allegretto - the music moves forward lightly, the melodic line singing along.
A second quality, which is prominent in the first movement, is how effective Asahina is with transitions, handling them so musically that one is reminded of Furtwängler, a master at seamless transitions. This is especially important in Bruckner, where many conductors emphasize abrupt contrasts too forcefully. When you put together Asahina’s lyrical impulse and his flexible beat, the result isn’t typical Brucknerian grandeur. I hasten to add that he and the Osaka Philharmonic deliver the Fourth’s exciting brass-filled climaxes impressively. But the overall impression, which will seem odd on first encounter, is that the conducting feels so traditionally German Romantic in the vein of Hermann Abendroth, for example, or Furtwängler himself, who had a profound influence on Asahina’s style.
What feels particularly Japanese, perhaps, is the inward mood this performance rests upon at its core. Buddhist Bruckner? I wouldn’t go that far, while still maintaining that Asahina’s Bruckner casts a spell of its own. The hunting-horn fanfares that open the Scherzo are solidly played here without aiming for momentary thrills. Instead, Asahina incorporates every element in the tapestry of Bruckner’s orchestration to unify the Scherzo, giving it unusual depth. The finale is also impressive in how musically its disparate episodes are unified into a satisfying whole, which is rare - Bruckner finales typically sound disjointed except in the best performances
This release is Vol. 3 in St. Laurent Studio’s new Asahina Edition, which is largely sourced from the collection of FANFARE’s Henry Fogel. Many Asahina recordings are out of print, hard to find, or released only on Japanese labels, which makes the advent of St. Laurent Studio’s series doubly valuable. I nominated Vol. 1, a Bruckner Ninth from 1991 with the Tokyo Symphony, for the Classical Hall of Fame (FANFARE 45:5), and this new Fourth Symphony, expertly remastered by Yves Saint-Laurent, is scarcely less fine. It belongs high on any collector’s list and demonstrates to the full why Asahina deserves to be counted among the great Brucknerians on disc.
- 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