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Janis

Label : RCA
Format : Flac track
Cover : Yes

Coinciding with Byron Janis’ 85th birthday in March 2013, Sony has compiled a complete album collection encompassing the pianist’s RCA Victor recordings, which date from 1947 to 1959. Individual volumes replicate original LP contents and artwork, along with one CD devoted to Janis’ 1947 78-rpm singles, and another featuring a previously unissued Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition. However, this collection is not quite “complete”.

The booklet notes acknowledge the absence of Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 27 No. 2 (originally released on the 1956 “Byron Janis Plays Chopin” LP) without further explanation. Furthermore, the collection only includes one out of three 1957 Liszt selections (the Rigoletto Paraphrase) published for the first time in Philips’ Great Pianists series. Why these omissions? In any event, the recordings certainly uphold Janis’ youthful reputation as one of the most exciting and dynamic American pianists to have emerged on the post-war scene.

Listen to the 19-year-old Janis in 1947 shape the A minor Bach/Liszt Prelude and Fugue with a wide dynamic palette and intelligently contoured contrapuntal lines. Janis’ first Chopin “Black Key” etude traversal evokes his mentor Vladimir Horowitz in that both pianists are among the very few to take the final descending octave peroration in strict tempo (easier said than done!). But the E major Op. 10 No. 3 Etude convinces less, with its slightly fast and glib central section, and the minor chords of measures 30-31 and 34-35 rendered in major.

For his first LP, Janis chose Beethoven’s “Tempest” sonata and Schubert’s E-flat Impromptu. These bracing, virile interpretations sound as fresh and modern today as they must have 60-plus years ago. Two Beethoven sonata performances are new to CD. The Waldstein’s Rondo movement and opening Allegro con brio stem from 1955 sessions held in EMI’s Abbey Road studio, while the Introduction leading into the Rondo was recorded in 1956 at New Work’s Webster Hall. The differences in both ambience and instrument are readily apparent, but not disturbing. Janis bypasses the first movement’s exposition repeat and slightly sentimentalizes the second subject. But the Rondo is both limpid and incisive. Although the booklet notes indicate that Janis takes the coda’s rapid descending octaves articulated from the wrist, they still manage to sound like octave glissandos.

If anything, the opaque “ping” characterizing early 1950s mono EMI solo piano sessions from Abbey Road is more noticeable in the Op. 109 sonata. Out of curiosity I listened to Janis’ version alongside three other mono Op. 109s from Abbey Road by Solomon, Myra Hess, and Walter Gieseking. Janis matches Hess and Solomon’s graceful simplicity in the fantasia-like first movement, but underplays the Prestissimo. He digs deepest in the third-movement theme and variations, interweaving the sections with assiduously unified tempo relationships and applying subtle dynamic gradations and textural balances that especially tell in the long chains of trills. The C-sharp minor Scherzo’s controlled ferocity stands out among the excellent 1956 solo Chopin selections.

For the most part Janis allows Pictures at an Exhibition’s stark pianistic language to speak for itself, although he adds a few discreet octave reinforcements here and there, while reiterating sustained notes and filling in chords throughout The Great Gate at Kiev. He also emulates Ravel’s orchestration by eliminating the Promenade preceding The Market Place at Limoges.

Back in the 1950s it was fashionable to play Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with Ferde Grofé’s saccharine textual emendations, but Janis’ stylistic flair and digital prowess compensates. Janis also sails through his childhood teacher Josef Lhevinne’s signature piece, the Strauss/Schulz-Evler “Blue Danube”, with comparable aplomb and apparent lack of effort. Steel-edged articulation, nervous energy, and gauntly singing lines characterize Liszt’s Totentanz, Strauss’ Burleske (sound clip), and the Rachmaninov First and Third concertos. The Reiner-led Rachmaninov First’s coiled objectivity and stellar orchestral framework set reference standards in its day, yet Janis’ Mercury remake with Kondrashin boasts sharper, more organic tempo contrasts and even greater pianistic bravura (compare both recordings’ first-movement cadenzas and you’ll hear what I mean).

During the 1960s, critical consensus favored Janis’ Mercury Rachmaninov Third with Antal Dorati and the London Symphony Orchestra over the 1957 Charles Munch/Boston Symphony version. Although the remake displays more sophisticated soloist/ensemble dovetailing a tauter, more astringent orchestral sonority, there’s something to be said for the BSO’s tonal heft and unusually prominent, even pugnacious brass section. In both recordings, by the way, Janis observes the once-frequent, now frowned-upon third-movement cut from two bars after rehearsal number 52 up to rehearsal number 54, and wisely opts for the faster, lighter first-movement cadenza favored by Horowitz, Argerich, and the composer himself.

The Schumann concerto collaboration with Reiner makes its CD debut here. Although recorded in 1959, it was not released at the time in deference to Van Cliburn’s own Reiner-led version. Given Cliburn’s status as a hero and classical bestseller, RCA Victor basically lost interest in Janis, who in turn left the label and accepted an offer from Mercury. Eventually the Janis/Reiner Schumann came out on a limited edition fundraiser LP, and later on in RCA’s half-speed audiophile LP series. The performance’s unusual features include a brisk and forthright central Andantino grazioso that refuses to milk the big C major tune (although I prefer Janis’ slightly slower and warmer Mercury remake), and a relaxed finale where the solo piano’s unceasing sequences and cross-rhythms have plenty of room to sing and speak. Shall we assume that the legendary Ray Still is responsible for the gorgeous-beyond-belief first-movement oboe solos?

Lastly, a bonus DVD presents Peter Rosen’s documentary film The Byron Janis Story. Janis speaks candidly about his long career, his continuing struggles with arthritis, and how he has overcome both physical and emotional adversity. Indeed, Janis is open to the point of allowing the cameras into his hospital room following hand surgery. In all, it’s good to have Janis’ small yet significant body of work for RCA Victor assembled in one place and well restored, notwithstanding the questionable omissions mentioned earlier.

Jed Distler (ClassicsToday.com)

Tracklist :

Ludwig van 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

Johannes Brahms
Waltz, Op. 39 No. 15 in A flat major
Waltz, Op. 39 No. 1 in B major
Waltz, Op. 39 No. 2 in E major
Waltz, Op. 39 No. 6 in C sharp major

Frederic Chopin
Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 35 ‘Marche funèbre’
Impromptu No. 1 in A flat major, Op. 29
Nocturne No. 8 in D flat major, Op. 27 No. 2
Mazurka No. 45 in A minor, Op. 67 No. 4
Scherzo No. 3 in C sharp minor, Op. 39
Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23
Étude Op. 10 No. 3 in E major ‘Tristesse’
Étude Op. 25 No. 3 in F major
Étude Op. 10 No. 5 in G flat major ‘Black Key’
Waltz No. 3 in A minor ‘Grande Valse Brillante’, Op. 34 No. 2
Waltz No. 14 in E minor, Op. post., KKIVa:15, B 56
Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23
Étude Op. 10 No. 8 in F major

George Gershwin
Rhapsody in Blue

Ferde Grofé
Grand Canyon Suite

Franz Liszt
Liebestraum, S541 No. 3 (Nocturne in A flat major)
Hungarian Rhapsody, S244 No. 6 in D flat major
Consolation, S. 172 No. 5 in E major
Sonetto 104 del Petrarca (Années de pèlerinage II, S. 161 No. 5)
Concert Paraphrase on Rigoletto, S.434 after Verdi’s opera
Totentanz, S126 for piano & orchestra
Totentanz, S126 for piano & orchestra
Liebestraum, S541 No. 3 (Nocturne in A flat major)
Hungarian Rhapsody, S244 No. 6 in D flat major

Modest Mussorgsky
Pictures at an Exhibition (piano version)

Sergei Rachmaninov
Piano Concerto No. 1 in F sharp minor, Op. 1
Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30

Franz Schubert
Impromptu in E flat major, D899 No. 2

Robert Schumann
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54

Johann Strauss II
An der schönen, blauen Donau, Op. 314

Richard Strauss
Burleske for Piano and orchestra in D minor, AV85

Byron Janis – piano
Boston Symphony Orchestr, Charles Munch
Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Fritz Reiner