Takashi Asahina, Vol. IV  -  Brahms & Wagner   (St Laurent Studio YSL T-1248)
Item# C1976
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Takashi Asahina, Vol. IV  -  Brahms & Wagner   (St Laurent Studio YSL T-1248)
C1976. TAKASHI ASAHINA Cond. New Japan Phil.: Symphony #1 in c (Brahms), Live Performance, 5 Feb., 1990, Orchard Hall, Tokyo; TAKASHI ASAHINA Cond. Osaka Phil.: Die Meistersinger - Prelude (Wagner), Live Performance, 4-5 Feb., 1980, Osaka Festival Hall. (Canada) St Laurent Studio YSL T-1248, Live Performance, 21-25 July, 1993, Festival Hall, Osaka. [A treasurable issue from Yves St Laurent!] Transfers by Yves St Laurent.


“There is a certain kind of inside knowledge that comes with the hunt for obscure conductors who turn out to be supremely talented. I think this especially pertains to Takashi Asahina (1908–2001), and I envy anyone coming across him for the first time. Here in Vol. 4 of St. Laurent Studio’s invaluable Asahina Edition, the main work is a magnificently performed Brahms Symphony #1. Newcomers will be surprised, perhaps even shocked, that a Japanese conductor could deliver a reading in the spirit of Wilhelm Furtwängler and to do it at the age of 82 with an unsung orchestra, the New Japan Philharmonic.

Several cultural strands wove together in order to reach this remarkable achievement. First was Asahina’s gifts as a musician. Japan had started to embrace Western ideas and institutions under the modern inclinations of the Meiji era that began in 1868. The dire aspect of this radical shift away from isolation was that Japan aspired to become a military power internationally. Asahina took advantage of the most benign aspect, becoming familiar with Western classical music from a young age. By the time he came to found the Osaka Philharmonic in 1947, he had become a skilled conductor who took special inspiration from two sources, the music of Bruckner and the conducting style of Furtwängler. The final strand in Asahina’s story was the rise of better Japanese orchestras in the postwar era.

None of this reached Western notice until Seiji Ozawa made us think of Japan, and even then the focus was on him, not the musical culture he sprang from. Asahina was the lighthouse for all young Japanese conductors, including Ozawa, and to devotees of his recordings, Asahina still stands at the summit.

It is impossible to guess that this Brahms First doesn’t come from a great Romantic conductor with the gifts of Hermann Abendroth, Bruno Walter, or even Furtwängler himself. The flexibility of Asahina’s phrasing, his sensitive expression, and his deep grasp of Brahms’s idiom are beyond criticism. The strings of the New Japan Philharmonic display a luminous sheen. If you were told that this is a ‘lost’ Brahms First from Klaus Tennstedt and the London Philharmonic, it would take a keen ear to disprove the claim (the clue might be in the woodwinds, but even there the Japanese first desks are quite good).

Great performances announce themselves without needing any description. Asahina indulges in no eccentric gestures; tempos and balances follow traditional lines. But every measure comes from a conductor and musicians who aspire to live up to Brahms’ genius. For me the touchstone of any reading of this symphony comes in the slow introduction to the finale. I want to hear a dramatic premonition of what’s to come, along with expressive intensity and exciting playing. These elements are all present with Furtwängler, Walter, Karajan, Bernstein, Klemperer, Tennstedt - and Asahina. He is slightly let down by a cautious first horn, but that’s a niggling complaint. The arrival of the big tune in the finale is another touchstone - here, the serene eloquence of the theme is unexpectedly moving.

The filler is the Prelude to Act 1 of DIE MEISTERSINGER from a decade earlier with the Osaka Philharmonic. In his 33rd season with his own orchestra, Asahina had shaped them into the finest ensemble in Japan. The leading Tokyo orchestras sometimes had better first desks, but it’s the unanimity of the Osaka orchestra that allowed them to communicate Asahina’s intentions with total understanding and sympathy. This occurs here in an utterly beautiful, expressive reading that makes you feel above all the Romantic illumination that suffuses Wagner’s music.

To date, all four volumes in the Asahina Edition have been revelatory. The recorded sound for Vol. 4 is close to studio quality, expertly remastered by producer Yves St.-Laurent. Given the scarcity of Asahina’s commercial recordings in the West, lovers of great conducting should urgently consider this release or indeed anything that St. Laurent Studio issues from Asahina. The source material came from FANFARE’s Henry Fogel, who had close personal ties with the conductor and who supplies the highest-quality recordings from his private collection.”

- 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