Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Dragon’s head, snake’s tail

Polydor 66425 [B 29114] label

Béla Bartók String Quartet No.2 Op.17 (Sz.67)
Amar Quartet (Licco Amar, Walter Caspar,
Paul Hindemith, Rudolf Hindemith)
rec. 1926, Berlin
commissioned and first issued privately by
[Dainippon Meikyoku Rekōdo Seisaku Hanpu Kwai
Great-Japan Society for Producing and Distributing
Records of Musical Masterpieces
label photo by Grumpy, transfer by
from commercial issue on Polydor 66425-87

Over the last year and more, I’ve been investigating and documenting the activities and publications of three small organizations of the 1920s and 1930s which modelled themselves on Britain’s National Gramophonic Society (the subject of my PhD research). Although based in the USA and Japan, the founders of these societies learned of the N.G.S. from articles, notices and advertisements published in its mouthpiece, The Gramophone. Emulating the N.G.S., they aimed to supplement the output of commercial gramophone companies, by arranging for uncommercial music to be recorded and pressed in limited editions for their members.

I hope to share online soon a detailed study of one of these societies. In the meantime, here’s a preliminary sketch of another. It’s the least known – yet its second issue was one of the milestones of the ‘78 rpm’ era: the premiere recording of any of Bartók’s string quartets. The set would not be ‘duplicated’ for a decade: Bartók No.2 was next recorded in April 1936, by the Budapest Quartet for H.M.V. The Amar Quartet’s pioneering version was soon made generally available, so it’s not particularly rare, unlike the original Japanese society issue, though it’s rightly prized by collectors. True, you sometimes read that it was commissioned by a group of Japanese enthusiasts, but no more than that.

The main reason is finding and reading original sources. I first learned of the Japanese society ten years ago, combing The Gramophone (by hand, from hard copies) for information about the National Gramophonic Society. In April 1926, the magazine’s more or less regular column of N.G.S. ‘Notes’ carried this item:

Tokio Meikyoku Records Seisaku Hampu Kai
‘The Western N.G.S. has now a sister in the East. Its name is as above and means “Tokio Good Record Recording and Distributing Society,” address, c/o M. Anan & Co., No.4, Awajicho 2-chome, Kanda, Tokio, Japan. It was established in 1925 and has 385 members.
‘The first issue was Scriabine’s IX. and X. Piano Sonatas, played by Alexander Sienkiewicz, on three 12in. records at 5 Y.’s each (presumably Yens).
‘Further information can, no doubt, be obtained from the secretary. We received a letter and two circulars, but the latter were printed entirely in Japanese characters.’

Someone in Tokyo took pity, and in August 1926 The Gramophone printed an English translation of one of the circulars, sent in by the Japanese society’s secretary. It was headed ‘Declamation’, exemplifying the language barrier which then divided music-lovers and record-buyers East and West, and still does. I don’t know of a comprehensive English-language study of Japan’s early record culture. The standard Japanese-language history of recording has apparently not been translated, so I haven’t been able to consult that or any primary Japanese sources. (I’m hoping to convince a kindly speaker or scholar of Japanese to translate or at least précis the bits I need.) Everything in this post I’ve gleaned from English-language sources, and from invaluable information kindly provided by a contact in Japan.

Luckily, the circular published by The Gramophone was very detailed, setting out the Society’s constitution, terms and conditions and projected recording programme. These were very like those of its acknowledged model, the N.G.S. – whose issues the Society regretted were too expensive to import (although some Japanese joined the N.G.S. on their own account, and had the discs posted to them). One not insignificant omission in the circular is a blank next to the entry ‘4. Advisers and Managers’ (I wonder if it was the Japanese or The Gramophone who hid the names?). I’m guessing that one of the Society’s prime movers and/or founders was Nomura Osakazu (1882-1963), better known under his pen names of Araebisu (as a music and record critic) and Nomura Kodō (as a novelist). Araebisu wrote extensively about records; I gather his verdicts on recorded interpretations were followed almost religiously. None of his gramophone criticism has been translated into English.

Again like the N.G.S., the Society needed a manufacturing partner. In Britain and the USA, record companies and dealers supported gramophone and phonograph societies by throwing open their premises to meetings, lending equipment and donating discs (or, originally, cylinders). Most such societies were gatherings of hobbyists who met to hear lectures, listen to music convivially, and compare and share technical tips about playback, record storage and so on. Only a tiny handful issued records for their members – for which, in the days of wax and shellac, they needed a record manufacturer (the N.G.S. used three at different times: Columbia, Vocalion and Parlophone).

For the Japanese Society, access to a manufacturer was provided by Anan & Co. Based in Kanda, Tokyo’s bookselling district, Anan & Co. was a leading importer of foreign records, notably Polydor, the export label of Germany’s Deutsche Grammophon. All the Society’s known issues were recorded in Germany by Grammophon and, initially, pressed there, until the Japanese government imposed a swingeing tariff on imported luxury goods, to aid domestic production and reconstruction after the devastating earthquake of 1923. In 1927, some two years after the Society was formed, like several other local firms, Anan formed a joint venture with its German partner and formed Nippon Polydor; the Society’s later issues may have been pressed in Japan but I’m not sure about that.

At the moment, I know nothing about Anan’s ownership or staff, but it clearly catered to a highly discerning clientele: the Society’s first two issues were extraordinarily adventurous for the mid-1920s. The first consisted of three twelve-inch discs containing the two last piano sonatas of Alexander Scriabin: No.9 Op.68 and No.10 Op.70, each on three sides. These were recorded electrically in 1926, in the studios of Grammophon, by Aleksander Sienkiewicz (1903-1982), a Polish pianist then based in Berlin (Sienkiewicz later emigrated to Brazil and became a respected teacher there). The discs were pressed in limited numbers and are now extremely rare, but remarkably they have been transferred by the Japanese label DiwClassics, in the second of its two surveys of historical recordings of Scriabin, both still commercially available.

DiwClassics DCL-1002 booklet front   obi

DiwClassics DCL-1002 (CD)
Hounds of Ecstasy: Historical Recordings of Scriabin Vol.2

Once again, as with the N.G.S., the Japanese Society’s recording programme was apparently proposed by a committee and voted on by the members. It’s fascinating that this should have resulted in an inaugural issue as adventurous as Scriabin’s last two sonatas – as N.G.S. committee member and Gramophone critic W.R. Anderson wrote of a set which was sent to the magazine,

‘The choice of music seems bold. These later Scriabin works are not altogether easy hearing, in some ways. In him a fresh wind blew through music. Our Japanese friends are taking a pretty big breath of this wind, and we hope they will enjoy the records.’

Sonata No.9 would not be recorded again for some 15 years, next appearing on Paraclete Music in a performance by Samuel Yaffe (1929-1980). No.10 was re-recorded at almost exactly the same time for another of the ‘society’ labels I’m studying, The Friends Of Recorded Music; the pianist was ‘the high priestess of Scriabin in America’, Katherine Ruth Heyman (1872-1944), about whom I now know quite a lot, and will write about soon if I can just get on top of the avalanche of information I’m finding on these fascinating figures.

The Society’s second issue was the Bartók Quartet, also recorded electrically in Berlin. The Scriabin set was never made available outside Japan, although my Japanese contact has unconfirmed information that it was later reissued on Nippon Polydor. The Bartók, on the other hand, was soon issued commercially both in Germany, on Grammophon, and, for export, on Polydor, and I imagine it must have stayed in the catalogues for quite some time. As far as I know, the Japanese issue has never been transferred; it probably survives in very few copies. I’ve never seen one, but I knew the discs were branded ‘Polydor’ and numbered 4 to 7 (the Scriabin discs were numbered 1 to 3). Now, thanks to the kindness of two eminent collectors, I also know what the labels looked like. The more common Western issue has previously been transferred by Arbiter:

Arbiter 139 (CD and download)
‘Hindemith as Interpreter:
The Amar Hindemith String Quartet’

For information on the Amar Quartet itself, see the characteristically excellent note by Tully Potter, which Arbiter has laudably posted on the above page in its online catalogue. I see the only member of this line-up for whom no one seems to have dates is the second violin, Walter Caspar, so I’m going to stick my neck out and say he was born in Breslau (now Wrocław) in 1881, was concertmaster of the South West German Radio orchestra in Frankfurt for many years, and died in 1953. Corrections gratefully received.

In 1927, a Japanese gramophone enthusiast named Hajime Fukaya wrote one of many letters to western record magazines (he was the first Japanese to be published in The Gramophone, in March 1925, and in 1926 wrote to the Manager of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra expressing his admiration for the Orchestra, its conductor Henri Verbrugghen, and their recordings, and requesting a photograph of the Orchestra). Addressed to the Boston-based Phonograph Monthly Review, his letter was published in its April 1927 issue:

No society movement in Japan
’I think the society movement very necessary at present situation, for to hear the novelty records each other, to know the new records, to held the gramophone concert for who could not buy the good record, and to appreciate the best music of the best performer. [...] Alas! I have heard “Good record distributing Society” of Tokyo, surely they have issued two kinds of records as you mentioned, but the Scriabin’s sonatas are not good from the point of the player, (unknown Polish pianist) and better Bartok’s String Quartet records now easily obtain from Polydor dealer, so the society’s peculiarity is very feeble, it is far below to the National Gramophonic Society of England, I am afraid the vanish of this Japanese Society in future, as our proverb says “Dragon’s head, snake’s tail.”’

Mr. Fukaya was possibly right to be afraid: with no further issue for almost three years, the Society did seem to fizzle out into a snake’s tail, as had the contemporary Chicago Gramophone Society, for instance. According to my Japanese contact, the Society was in fact merged with Nippon Polydor on the latter’s foundation in April 1927. But in April 1929 the Review relayed some good news from Mr. Fukaya:

‘Here is wonderful phenomenon that the Polydor version of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis will sell in near future as the subscription records to the members of the private recording society, but the set is not so privileged one like their first distributed two Scriabin’s sonatas, for we can possess the set easily from your record importers or many other foreign shops earlier than before our home distribution of it, moreover this monopolized policy shall meet keen competition when our Victor releases their Spanish recorded version of the same set in future.’

It is unclear from Mr. Fukaya’s letter whether the Society was responsible for commissioning Polydor’s recording of the Missa solemnis or simply secured it for its members. But an online listing of a Japanese CD transfer states, in machine translation, ‘This recording was a recording of a Japanese project realized with the plan of “Dainippon Nominated Song Record Distribution Committee”.’ So it seems we do have the Society to thank for the second complete recording of the Missa solemnis, made in Berlin in 1928 by the Bruno Kittel Choir and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Bruno Kittel. (The ‘keen competition’ was from the first complete recording, made live in June 1927 by the Spanish branch of the Gramophone Co., with the Orfeó Català choir conducted by Lluis Millet; in October 1928, the Gramophone Co. recorded two twelve-inch discs of excerpts in Leeds, for domestic issue on its H.M.V. plum ‘C’ label.)

Polydor 95155 (face B 25154, matrix 1213 bm I)
Beethoven Missa solemnis in D Op.123 –
Agnus Dei, part II (side 19 of 21)
soloists, Bruno Kittel Choir,
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Bruno Kittel

This long work, requiring twenty-one twelve-inch sides, took Grammophon some time to record, and it was apparently not possible to engage the same quartet of soloists for all the sessions. The final line-up was:

  • Lotte Leonard and Emmy Land, sopranos
  • Eleanor Schlosshauer-Reynolds, alto
  • Anton Maria Topitz and Eugen Transky, tenors
  • Wilhelm Guttmann and Hermann Schey, basses
  • Wilfried Hanke [concertmaster], violin (Sanctus)

I haven’t yet investigated this set in great discographical detail but I’ve seen no evidence that it was issued in a special pressing for the Japanese Society; possibly members received the standard commercial pressing. The filler was a choral version of Beethoven’s setting of Gellert, Die Ehre Gottes aus der Natur Op.48 No.4, performed by the choir of St. Hedwig’s Basilica in Berlin, conducted by Pius Kalt. There have been various transfers of the set, most recently on CD by Saint-Laurent Studio of Canada, and by Universal Music Japan (the latter omits the filler), and as a download (gratis) by Dutch blogger Satyr (see above).

Universal Music [Japan] UCCG-90308 (2 SHM-CDs)Beethoven Missa solemnis in D Op.123
soloists, Bruno Kittel Choir,
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Bruno Kittel

After Hajime Fukaya’s letter, quoted above, I have found no further notice of the Society’s activities in the Western press. Yet my Japanese contact informed me that it was disbanded only in June 1935, so there may have been other issues which I know nothing about. By then Fukaya had co-founded a Japanese record magazine, The Gramophile, whose first issue appeared in February 1930, and which numbered Araebisu among its contributors. How long it stayed in print, I don’t yet know either.

So, to the Bartók quartet. My copy of the Polydor issue was transferred and remastered by Jolyon, to whom very many thanks. There are still occasional bursts of distortion, from damage to the grooves caused by playing the discs with steel needles instead of fibre, but they’re few and don’t detract from Jolyon’s fine work. You can download his transfer in an archive file containing three fully tagged digital files, one for each movement, in either FLAC or AAC lossless formats, via these links:

FLAC (for Windows)

AAC (for Mac)


4 October 2017:

I am extremely grateful to the collectors Peter Adamson and Raymond Glaspole for this scan of the handsome label on the first disc from the Japanese Society edition of this set. I’m interested to see that it carries no face number, unlike all Grammophon and Polydor issues of this period.

Polydor 4-A [415 bg] label [Glaspole ed Adamson]

Polydor 4-A (matrix 415 bg) label
[Photo: Raymond Glaspole / Peter Adamson]

The Gramophone (subscription required)

Phonograph Monthly Review (open access)

Mitsui, Toru ‘Interactions of Imported and Indigenous Musics in Japan: A Historical Overview of the Music Industry’, in Ewbank, Alison J. & Papageorgiou, Fouli T. [eds.] Whose Master’s Voice? The Development of Popular Music in Thirteen Cultures, Westport, CT / London: Greenwood Press, 1997, pp.152-74

Peter Adamson, Scotland
Raymond Glaspole, Oxford
Shuichiro Kawai, Japan
Akiko Kimura, British Library, London
Dr. Margaret Mehl, Denmark
Hisao Natsume, Japan
Jonathan Summers, British Library, London


  1. What an eyeopener this is - when you think you know something Nick just goes and opens a door on an unexplored area of recording history. Well done, a really solid bit of research.


    1. Gosh, Jols, that's extremely kind of you, when I feel I've just scratched the surface - while you have lovingly caressed the scratchy old surfaces of my discs and coaxed this lovely music out of them, for which many thanks again! Nick

  2. This fascinating blog opens our eyes to an important, but little known in the West, aspect of record history: the Japanese collector. Looking forward very much to further episodes. Thank you so much!

    1. Many thanks for your kind comment, David! If only it was easier for them and us to talk to each other... All the best, as ever, G