Ken Sasaki (1943 - 1991)
Ken Sasaki was born in Sendai, Japan. Encouraged by his musically gifted mother he studied the piano for early childhood. After graduating cum laude from Tokyo University of Arts, he made his debut in 1966. In the same year the Polish Ministry of Culture awarded him a grant for a two year course at the Warsaw Conservatoire, where he studied under Professor Zbigniev Drzewiecki and Madame Danuta Lewandowska, the latter having a profound influence on his style and musical thinking. In 1969 the French government gave him a grant to attend the master classes of Professor Vlado Perlemuter.
The international background (he also spent some time at the Leningrad Conservatoire) is revealed not only in the breadth of his repertoire, but also in his fluency with languages – Polish, French, Russian and English, in addition to his native Japanese. It is not surprising that he was to become a member of the first wave of Eastern artists to conquer Western music lovers, and at a time when to so was rare and exotic.
In 1972, at the age of nineteen, the famous impresario, Wilfred van Wyck, brought him over to give his British debut at the Wigmore Hall. His recitals received high critical acclaim. The Daily Telegraph praised him for “his musical poise and sensitivity”, while the Times spoke of his “superb technical control”.
Throughout this period Ken Sasaki continued to make numerous appearances throughout Japan, besides giving concerts and recitals across the world – including USA, Poland, France, Holland, Switzerland, Austria and Germany. In 1979 he undertook a coast-to-coast tour of the USA, which culminated in a New York recital, described, by the critic of the New York Times, as being “dramatic and brilliant”.
For the last twenty five years of his life, Ken Sasaki made his home in Paris, returning to Japan twice yearly for a range of appearances at which he frequently introduced European artists, such as the Warsaw Chamber Orchestra, the Berlin Octet and others.
Almost every reviewer spoke of his brilliance and the superb technical gifts which astounded his audiences. He, himself, discounted this talent by refusing many festival inveitations for his Liszt interpretations, which he dismissed as being “only a circus”, a comment, which some people mistook for arrogance, but which merely revealed the innate modesty of his personality.
Sasaki’s constant aim was to remain accurate to the composer’s intention, without embellishment. Happily, this rare quality was readily recognised by critics. Whether in London, Paris, Warsaw, Berlin or Vienna, they spoke of his “exploring the soul of the music, not just the notes”, or “a sensitivity of touch and subtlety”, “indulging I no tricks, with a huge range of tone” an “intuitive interpretation of great warmth”, and “superb control”. Not surprisingly his playing of Ravel and Chopin found some of its greatest admirers in the composers’ own countries (in 1984 he was awarded the prestigious Stephanie Niekrasz prize for his playing of Chopin).
Ken Sasak’s last recital was in 1990, when he returned to the Wigmore Hall, thus coming full circle from his debut, via many London recitals at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. His new programme, which he intended introducing to his Japanese audiences, comprised of Schumann’s ‘Fantasie in C, Op.12’; Scriabin’s ‘Five Etudes’ and Liszt’s ‘6 Paganini Studies’. The audience was enthralled, especially by his haunting treatment of the Scriabin, which many of those present asked him to record as soon as possible.
In fact, when he was struck down by his fatal illness, Ken Sasaki was on the point of signing a major international recording contract. At the age of forty-eight he was on the threshold of the full flowering of his musical talent.
Ken Sasaki did make some well received records, including the Chopin Etudes, for which the Gramophone praised him for his “sensitive tone with exquisitely balanced textures” and “mellifluous and graceful performances”.
His most mature work had yet to be recorded, which means that, although the quality of these live performances (some are no more than rehearsals) cannot compare with what might have been, they do give us a very good idea of the stature of one of the first Japanese masters to bring certain freshness of interpretation of the international scene.
As Harmonie Panorama France said, “An Artist out of the ordinary, with a freshness that allows us to discover a special pleasure in listening to his interpretation of such frequently recorded pieces”.
- Ernest Hecht © 1995
The fact that Ken Sasaki made so few commercial recordings is a cause for regret but, such an absence of studio work makes these performances doubly interesting. Sasaki was a spontaneous artist; at his best when stimulated by an audience, or when winding himself up during rehearsals to concert pitch. Nobody, at the time, thought these amateur tapes would ever be published. They were merely for Sasaki’s own use in guiding him towards his chosen goals.
These are the reasons for the poor technical quality of the present recordings. They are, sometimes, second or even third generation tapes from an original, which had often been recorded on nothing better than a domestic tape-recorder. Such technical shortcomings should not come between the artist and the listener; not when the artistry is of such a quality and the insights at such a level, as Sasaki’s.
Once the tapes had been transferred from domestic cassettes to digital hard disk, every effort has been taken to remove unwanted background noise from the recordings. Many hours have been spent in enhancing the quality of the recording sound. By subtle adjustment of the frequency bands of the recording a harmonious programme has been made available.
Ken Sasaki’s recordings are made available from Piano Society thanks to Ernest Hecht,
Managing Director of Souvenir Press Ltd in London.