C2002. TAKASHI ASAHINA Cond. Osaka Phil.: Symphony #2 in D (Sibelius), Live Performance, 22 Nov., 1978, Osaka Festival Hall, Osaka; Hungarian Dance #5 in f-sharp (Brahms); Die Meistersinger - Act I Prelude (Wagner), Live Performances, Feb., 1980, Osaka Festival Hall, Osaka; w. Junko Ioka & Setsuko Takemoto: Symphony #2, 'Resurrection' Symphony #2 in c (Mahler), Live Performance, 23 July, 1995, Suntory Hall, Tokyo. (Canada) 2-St Laurent Studio YSL T-1259. Transfers by Yves St Laurent.
“The illustrious Japanese conductor Takashi Asahina managed to become a link in the great tradition of German Romantic conductors without training in Germany, thanks to his admiration for Wilhelm Furtwängler and some formative experiences in China where he experienced the tradition first-hand. This new installment in St. Laurent Studio’s invaluable Asahina Edition will be an eye-opener for newcomers and a confirmation of the conductor’s gifts for those who already cherish him. Everything is captured in studio-quality stereo for the period, expertly transferred by producer Yves St.Laurent, and Asahina’s own orchestra, the Osaka Philharmonic, laid claim to being the best in Japan. Without rivaling front-rank Western ensembles they play with evident skill and excellent training in all sections.
Asahina was born in Tokyo in 1908, and the cultural connections with the West that flourished in the Meiji period allowed him to learn to love classical music from a young age. This Sibelius Second from 1978 finds the conductor in his late prime, and it’s a sterling performance, cast on a heroic scale with Brahmsian urgency minus Brahmsian weightiness. If I recall correctly, Pablo Casals had a simple rule about dynamics: Get louder if the music is rising and softer if it is descending. Asahina adopted the same practice in his Sibelius, which gives the first movement a dramatic rise-and-fall that is very effective expressively. He sees the second movement, if anything, as more dramatic still, and Sibelius’ tempo marking of Andante ma rubato justifies Asahina’s flexible approach to phrasing. Sometimes the music gets too agitated, perhaps, but the lonely trumpet solo has rarely sounded so moving and haunted. The Vivacissimo marking for the Scherzo is interpreted moderately, but I think it was wise not to ask the Osaka string section to play too fast lest the rapid staccato passages get blurred. The finale is also kept a little on the moderate side compared with the overpowering effect that Karajan, for example, aims for. Even so, we are far from Barbirolli’s stoic grandeur in his famous recording with the Royal Philharmonic. By making drama the key element in his interpretation, Asahina brings home a very impressive performance that feels emotionally complete.
Since he had just celebrated his 87th birthday in July 1995 when Asahina led the Mahler “Resurrection” Symphony in Suntory Hall, Tokyo, I had my apprehensions. Leopold Stokowski recorded a celebrated Mahler Second with the London Symphony in 1963 when he was 81, but Asahina’s late period could be hit or miss. Happily, he is in excellent form, leading a reading that doesn’t aim for the greatest visceral impact but succeeds in the expressive flow that Asahina shared with Bruno Walter. There are few abrupt contrasts in the first movement, yet everything has sufficient energy and is beautifully shaped from episode to episode while rising to meet the dramatic interjections when they erupt. The second movement is more reminiscent of a minuet than usual, thanks to Asahina’s gentleness and lilt with the main theme. The moving line never sags, however, and a lovely dream-like mood is maintained. I’m not fond of the artillery-style timpani thwacks that open the Scherzo here, but Asahina’s tempo is quite animated. Mahler asks for humorous playing in keeping with the original Knaben Wunderhorn song about St. Anthony preaching with mock solemnity to a school of open-mouthed fish, but most readings are too straight. Asahina’s way isn’t particularly droll, either, and the woodwinds are a little recessed. Nonetheless, the upbeat mood is better than renditions that grow too heavy-handed and literal.
Japan’s love affair with Western classical music didn’t lead to singers who are as good as the country’s best orchestras, but mezzo Setsuko Takemoto has a pleasingly rounded, plummy tone, and leaving aside her sketchy German, the spiritual quality of “Urlicht” comes through. It’s a hindrance that she is captured in such a roomy ambience that her enunciation is blurred. For his part, Asahina delivers a moving reading of the orchestral part. High drama on the verge of cataclysm begins next, and any fears that the elderly Asahina might run out of steam by this point are soon dispelled - he has a firm grip on the symphony’s massive concluding half hour. The orchestral execution is admirable, and the offstage brass ensembles are captured very well by the engineers. Best of all, Asahina makes everything feel like a real event, just as Mahler intended. I’d be surprised if a listener, after being told that the performance came from Bruno Walter, would be able to tell that it didn’t. Power and eloquence are combined in a masterful way—I’d even say that the final portion of the “Resurrection” Symphony could be offered in evidence that Asahina was a genuinely great conductor. The chorus sings beautifully (absent intelligible German), and soprano Junko Ioka enters ethereally, with lovely, controlled tone, creating the angelic effect Mahler wants. What I come away with, most of all, is Asahina’s gift for phrasing and heartfelt expression of the old-fashioned kind that continually brings Walter to mind.
The 2-CD set is filled out with the Prelude from DIE MEISTERSINGER and Brahms’ Hungarian Dance #5 from Osaka in 1980 - anomalous choices after the shattering apotheosis that concludes the Mahler but in echt Romantic performances that I loved. The spirit of Furtwängler smiles down on the Wagner in particular.”
- 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