CD+DVD Reviews

Byron Janis, piano – The Complete RCA Album Collection = Works of BEETHOVEN, SCHUBERT, CHOPIN, GERSHWIN, BRAHMS, SCHUMANN, RACHMANINOV, MUSSORGSKY, J. STRAUSS, LISZT & GROFE – with Chicago, Boston, Hugo Winterhalter orchestras – RCA (11 CDs + 1 DVD)

A comprehensive, if incomplete, survey of the Byron Janis legacy for RCA, 1947-1959, which exemplifies the often brilliant and intelligent prowess he commanded at the keyboard.

Published on May 30, 2013

Byron Janis – The Complete RCA Album Collection = BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 17 in D Minor, Op. 31, No. 2 “Tempest”; Piano Sonata No. 21 in C Major, Op. 53 “Waldstein”; Piano Sonata No. 30 in E Major, Op. 109; SCHUBERT: Impromptu in E-flat Major, D. 899, No. 2; GERSHWIN: Rhapsody in Blue; CHOPIN: Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor, Op. 35; Impromptu No. 1; Nocturne No. 8 in D-flat Major; Etude No. 5 in G-flat Major; Etude in E, Op. 10, No. 3; Etude in F, Op. 25, No. 3; Mazurka No. 45 in A Minor; Scherzo No. 3 in C-sharp Minor; 5 Waltzes; Ballade No. 1 in G Minor; BRAHMS: 3 Waltzes; J. STRAUSS: On the Beautiful Blue Danube; LISZT: Liebestraum No. 3 in A-flat Major; Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6 in D-flat Major; Paraphrase de Concert sur Rigoletto; Todtentanz; R. STRAUSS: Burleske in D Minor; RACHMANINOV: Piano Concerto No. 1 in F-sharp Minor, Op. 1; Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 30; MUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition; SCHUMANN: Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 54; BACH: Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, BWV 543 (arr. Liszt); GROFE: Grand Canyon Suite—excerpts
BONUS DVD: The Byron Janis Story – Chicago Sym. Orch./ Fritz Reiner/ Boston Sym. Orch./ Charles Munch (Rachmaninov Con. No. 3)/ Hugo Winterhalter and His Orch. (Gershwin and Grofe) – RCA 88725484402 (11 CDs + 1  DVD), CDs TT: 5 hrs. 45 mins; DVD: 55:47 ***** [Distr. Sony Music]:

The extraordinary career of pianist Byron Janis (nee Yankelevich, b. 1928), pupil of such luminaries as Adele Marcus and Vladimir Horowitz, has an impressive – though partial, given his recording history with Mercury and EMI – history told through his RCA inscriptions from 1947-1959. Considering the interest Janis and his wife Maria Cooper – daughter of esteemed actor Gary Cooper – have in paranormal activity, it is no less remarkable that for the major portion of an illustrious presence as a fiery virtuoso, Janis accomplished his work with nine out of ten fingers!  At age eleven, Janis accidentally sliced through the tendon of his left hand’s little finger and suffered nerve damage; and he was told he would never play the piano again. So much for medical pronouncements. And since Janis calls artists “masters of imperfection” who constantly seek for perfection, the adjustments he has made to his technique to secure the scores he loves ring with a vital, energetic authenticity.

Beginning in 1973 Janis had to face another series of personal obstacles, since he developed psoriatic arthritis in his hands. Surgeries and medications aside, Janis had to make innumerable alterations in the fingering of his chosen repertory in order to perform the works ad to maintain the illusion of digital proficiency. In 1985, Janis came forth publicly with his plight and accepted an appointment as ambassador for the Arthritis Foundation. While Janis must restrict his repertory to those pieces he can realize without strain or padding, he continues to perform, even having undertaken another recording project in early 2013.

Each connoisseur of the Byron Janis RCA legacy will cherish his particular favorites, but each CD – in its original RCA jacket – comes rich with wonderful memories.  The Blue Danube transcription by Schulz-Evler (20 August 1952) pays tribute to Josef Lhevinne, another of the Janis legendary teachers. The Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6 from the same session accomplishes for Janis enthusiasts what Kapell’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 11 in A Minor did for his repute as a wizard in Romantic bravura literature. While RCA restores one Liszt paraphrase from Rigoletto, he did record three pieces on 25 September 1957 that Philips had included in their The Great Pianists series. The 3 April 1953 collaboration with Hugo Winterhalter in Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue introduced Janis to Ferde Grofe’s jazz arrangement and the Janis devotees to a “hot” facet of their idol’s art. Atlanta Symphony Orchestra co-conductor Louis Lane recalled in an interview having played the Rachmaninov D Minor Concerto with Janis, an event he labeled “truly exciting.” Something of that suave electricity exists in the Janis collaboration with Charles Munch in Boston (29 December 1957), which Janis himself characterizes as “a spontaneous approach.” The choice to utilize the briefer and lighter of the two cadenzas Rachmaninov left may not sit well with those who, like me, gravitate to the massive cadenza utilized by Evgeny Mogilevsky.

Janis always appreciated the ministrations of conductor Fritz Reiner in Chicago; and in several respects the repertory they covered together – excepting the rousing Strauss Burleske (4 March 1957), the Liszt Todtentanz (23 February 1959), and the Rachmaninov F-sharp Minor Concerto (2 March 1957) – repeated much of the same repertory RCA inscribed with the more marketable talent of Van Cliburn. The Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition (13-27 May 1958) receives its first release in this edition. A potent reading of the score, it comes at a time when another vital American artist also inscribed piece, for Columbia, Gary Graffman. Janis openly admits adding “fireworks” to the conclusion at the “Great Gate of Kiev.” Janis’ strong reputation in Chopin is justly earned, as witnessed in his crisp rendition of the Scherzo in C-sharp Minor (19 September 1956); but for some unaccountable reason, the Nocturne in D-flat Major has been omitted by RCA on a CD whose time accounts for less than thirty-six minutes. The release here of the Schumann Piano Concerto with Reiner (21 February 1959) illustrates the decisive drive and intelligent, searching power Janis could bring to familiar repertory. But since it exactly corresponds to Reiner’s work with Cliburn, RCA suppressed it and virtually drove Janis to sign with Mercury Records, where he inscribed Prokofiev, Schumann, and Rachmaninov with a sympathetic conductor in Antal Dorati and the Russian Kirill Kondrashin.

The youthful Janis, nineteen-years-old, makes a startling recorded debut in the Liszt transcription of the Bach Prelude and Fugue in A Minor (24 November 1947), though the piano sound remains distant. The lovely E Major Etude becomes rather manic in its middle section, though the outward section remains poised and lyrical. The G-flat Major “Black Key” Etude displays a verve and polish that commend whatever insights Horowitz bequeathed Janis. The F Major Etude from Op. 25 exhibits schwung, but I find it a bit constricted when placed against Arrau’s version for EMI.

The 2010 documentary on DVD by Peter Rosen cuts a fine line between verite and intrusiveness, covering the various ills, mental and physical, that Janis underwent, but also supplying testimonials by various associates of his prowess and determination, which include his discovery of Chopin manuscripts in Europe. Whether we needed to barge into Janis’ post-operative hospital room after his hand surgery is a question I leave to fans of Medical Center and Marcus Welby. But I will share a story of my own, undocumented in this video: visiting Mr. Janis in the Green Room after an Atlanta Symphony Concert, our conversation was interrupted by a lovely young woman who queried, “Darling, are you finished?” Maria Cooper, the pianist’s wife, stood at the door. “Aren’t you Maria Cooper?” I asked. “I am Gary Lemco, my being named for your father, Gary Cooper.” “Good choice!” Maria shot back at me, and the couple took their leave.

—Gary Lemco




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