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

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

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

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

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

product_title= 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.
product_by=A review by Marc Bridle