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Reviews

26 Jun 2019

Kenshiro Sakairi and the Tokyo Juventus Philharmonic in Mahler’s Eighth

Although some works by a number of composers have had to wait uncommonly lengthy periods of time to receive Japanese premieres - one thinks of both Mozart’s Jupiter and Beethoven’s Fifth (1918), Handel’s Messiah (1929), Wagner’s Parsifal (1967), Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette (1966) and even Bruckner’s Eighth (1959, given its premiere by Herbert von Karajan) - Mahler might be considered to have fared somewhat better.

Gustav Mahler: Symphony No.8; Tokyo Juventus Philharmonic/Kenshiro Sakairi; ALTUS 012/3; recorded live 16th September 2018, Muza Kawasaki Symphony Hall, Japan; available from HMV Japan.

A review by Marc Bridle

 

Famously, the Fourth, if not premiered first, was given the earliest recording by the New Symphony Orchestra of Tokyo under Hildemaro Konoye in May 1930; the Eighth was performed in Japan in December 1949, conducted by Kazuo Yamada, almost certainly the first time it was ever heard in the Far East.

There is a perfectly logical reason why Japan seems to have been so slow in embracing western classical music. In part, it is simply a factor of Japanese society which largely rejected outside cultural influences, especially before the Meiji Restoration of 1868. But what Japan lacked, which was not the case in either the United States or Europe, were music schools and decent orchestras to teach and play this music. Luther Whiting Mason, director of the Boston Music School, and the Munich-born Klaus Pringsheim, would both have a profound impact on the expansion of western music in Japan and its lineage through the twentieth century and onwards stretches from notable Mahler conductors beginning with Wakasugi, Kazuo Yamada, Akiyama and Ozawa through to Kobayashi and Inoue and a younger generation which includes Kazuki Yamada, Kentaro Kawase and Kenshiro Sakairi.

As an introduction to this new recording of Mahler’s Eighth, this diversion into the (briefest) of backgrounds is not strictly irrelevant because what we have here are the fruits of those earliest musical schools. The Tokyo Juventus Philharmonic doesn’t exactly think in terms of repertoire that is scaled down; in fact, all of its previous CDs have been of some of the most difficult and unforgiving works which would test many professional symphony orchestras. But then, this is not an ordinary youth orchestra, and Kenshiro Sakairi is a distinctly unusual conductor.

The Tokyo Juventus Philharmonic was founded in 2008 - originally under the name of the Keio University Youth Orchestra - and its first musicians were mainly high school students and members from the university. Today it has as many as 150 musicians. Like many western youth orchestras its repertoire is limited to a few concerts a year but what is particularly distinctive about the TJP is that it shares many of the characteristics of professional Japanese orchestras. That blended brass tone, the rich string sound, the distinctive woodwind phrasing and the precision of the playing are of an extremely high standard.

If there is a common thread which links youth orchestras it is often that the body of players is much larger than one would experience in most symphony orchestras we hear today in concert halls. Eight double-basses are the norm - not the thirteen we get in this Mahler Eighth. Arguably, the heft and weight, especially in the strings, probably doesn’t make this strictly necessary - listen to either recording of Sakairi’s Bruckner Eighth or Ninth and the richness of the cellos and basses, and even the violins, sometimes a weakness in many Japanese orchestras, makes for a thrilling sound, and would likely be so without the added strings. Sakairi is himself a patient conductor, one who takes his time over the music - it’s highly organic and is nurtured as such. The pauses and spaces he inserts between notes, the acknowledgement of bar rests, are more than a nod to a conductor like Celibidache, or even late Asahina.

It's certainly clear this is a musical partnership which is getting better - their Mahler Third, recorded in 2017, perhaps got lost in some parts, where a focus on orchestral beauty became a template for a loss of perspective elsewhere (though Sakairi is by no means the first conductor to be trapped by this symphony’s problems). On the other hand, an unreleased Mahler Second from a year earlier is tremendously powerful for quite the opposite reason - it sacrifices some orchestral beauty for an unswerving relentlessness and swagger. A Bruckner Ninth, from January 2018, is a colossal performance - it’s visionary, prepared with meticulous attention to detail, and yet so extraordinarily intense and fresh. This most recent recording of Mahler’s Eighth is at least as striking.

Although CD issues of Mahler Eighth have become more frequent - and in Japan there had been eleven prior to this recording - by a strange quirk, and less than a week after this Sakairi performance, another was given, by Kazuhiro Koizumi and The Kyushu Symphony Orchestra, and that, too, has just been released on Fontec. Can you have too much of a good thing? Well, yes and no. For many years, Takashi Asahina’s Osaka Philharmonic recording, performed in 1972, was the first and only one available - and it remains to this day one of the best from Japan. One could question the idiomatic accuracy of the singing - but what Asahina does with the symphony is often compelling. Yamada’s 1979 recording with the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra was done thirty years after his Japanese premiere of the work - and is the most detailed, perhaps most convincing performance to date. Others, like Wakasugi (who recorded the first complete Mahler cycle in Japan), Inoue and Kobayashi seem both overwhelmed and lost in the scale of this symphony. Of the two western conductors to have recorded with Japanese orchestras, Bertini has a narrow edge over Inbal.

Kenshiro Sakairi’s recording is incredibly detailed; in fact, it’s meticulously so in a way almost very few Mahler Eighth’s are. This orchestra and conductor’s precision - in the sense that every note is in place, the feeling that every facet of the score has been followed - works for and against them. When I first listened to this CD I was so blown away by the orchestra, their tone, the finesse and articulation of the woodwind, and the sheer opulence of the sound generated that the measure of the symphony’s scale rather eluded me. It’s only on a second listening I became fully aware of the electrifying performance that Sakairi gives. Quite how this would have worked in the concert from which this performance is taken is a question I have yet to definitively answer for myself.

As is common with most of the TJP/Sakairi recordings - most notably the superlative Bruckner Ninth - it is the singularity of the symphonic line, the ability to take this music in an arc which is so hugely impressive. I don’t think Sakairi takes his cue from many of the Japanese performances he probably grew up with - rather, the influence that seems most striking is that of Bernstein. He is only marginally slower than Bernstein’s LSO recording, though timings are deceptive. The pace Sakairi sets - and generally holds - is swift but the structure, whether in Part I or Part II, retains a formidable flow and smoothness, and I don’t mean smoothness in an ineffectual or unimposing way. The clarity of the variations in Part II, where many conductors sectionalise this symphony, isn’t patched together - it has a very fluid narrative. And if this is an orchestra with a powerful sound, the whole of the opening of Part II, that wonderfully mysterious orchestral prelude, is actually magical and haunting. There is much in this performance which suggests collision - but there is much which swings the opposite way towards heavenly enlightenment.

How far the pathos, or spirit of redemption, or even the profoundly complex journey into Faust’s soul, which is a powerful force in this symphony could, or might, confound a young orchestra or conductor, throws up some interesting contrasts with other recordings. Sakairi is barely over thirty; Asahina and Yamada were well into their sixties when their recordings were made. Few might expect a younger man to empathise so directly with the concept of mystery - yet, it’s here. It was there in his Bruckner Ninth. Yamada’s recording might be convincing in many respects, but it’s arguable thirty years after his premiere his vision of this symphony had changed. As was common with many Yamada performances in his later years, tempo could be wildly disjointed, and that is the case here. He speeds up, and slows down, with disturbing frequency. Asahina is perhaps more stable. But what disfigures both performances is the quality of the playing, which is erratic at best, and simply inferior at worst. Asahina is prone to take his time; Yamada tends to navigate a more ill-disciplined route.

Sakairi and the TJP play with quite sublime brilliance, and the recording exposes them to quite a high degree of scrutiny. As is common with many Altus CDs, the engineering is first rate - though perhaps some might find the choral forces a little recessed. The focus here can sometimes be very much on the orchestra and the soloists. That ‘exposure’ works in many ways: the orchestra can sound unusually dark (though I personally like their sound), the tendency to spotlight instrumental solos is often ravishing. The opening to the ‘Chorus Mysticus’ is astounding, mystical, hushed and deeply moving. How the chorus just floats above the orchestra and the soprano gently rises through them both is beautifully captured by the microphones. But to be able to not overblow the climax as well says much for both the careful attention to dynamics from Sakairi and the outstanding engineering.

What of the singing itself? It’s undoubtedly the case that in the past Japanese choirs and soloists have found German a problem; that is less true today. Most, if not all, of the singing on this Mahler Eighth is comfortably pronounced, and more so given the heady tempo which Sakairi sets for them. Is there enough contrast in the soloists? Yes, I think there is, especially in the trio of sopranos who sing with gorgeous precision and colour. Shimizu Nayutu, as Pater Profundis, is superb - a deep, rich bass, sounding suitably tortured. Likewise, Miyazato Naoki manages the high tessitura of Doctor Marianus with flawless technique. Both the NHK Children’s Choir and the Tokyo Juventus Philharmonic Choir are superb.

This is unquestionably the finest Mahler Eighth yet to emerge from Japan. However, I’d go a bit further than this - it leaves a lot of Mahler Eighths recorded in the United States and Europe rather in the shade as well. There is a blend of the orchestral and the vocal here, the redemptive and the dramatic, which is enormously compelling. It helps it has been captured in beautiful sound, but the performance is entirely gripping. Much of it is simply electrifying - many Mahler Eighths, rather elusively, aren’t. All in all, a magnificent disc.

Marc Bridle

Soprano 1 (Moritani Mari), Soprano 2 (Nakae Saki), Soprano 3 (Nakayama Miki), Alto 1 (Akira Taniji Akiko), Alto 2 (Nakajima Keiko), Tenor (Miyazato Naoki), Baritone (Imai Shunsuke), Bass (Shimizu Nayuta), NHK Tokyo Children's Choir (Choral Conductor: Kanada Noriko), Tokyo Juventus Philharmonic Choir (Choral Conductor: Tanimoto Yoshi Motohiro, Yoshida Hiroshi)

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