BYRON JANIS: THE COMPLETE RCA ALBUM COLLECTION
Byron Janis (pn); Fritz Reiner
, cond; Charles Munch
, cond; Hugo Winterhalter
, cond; Chicago SO;
RCA/SONY 88725484402 (11 CDs + 1 DVD: 7:32:38)
Prelude & Fugue in a.
Sonatas Nos. 17, 21, 30.
Piano Sonata No. 2. Impromptu No. 1. 4 Etudes. Waltz in e. Ballade No. 1.
Grande Valse brillante.
Mazurka in a. Scherzo No. 3.
Rhapsody in Blue.
Grand Canyon Suite (sel).
. Hungarian Rhapsody
. Rigoletto Paraphrase.
Pictures at an Exhibition.
Concerto No. 1.
Concerto No. 3.
J. STRAUSS II
Blue Danube Concert Arabesques.
This is the sort of set that could almost make yours truly, an inveterate repertory collector (with a singular divagation into the arena of Mussorgsky’s
), into a collector of piano recordings. I’ve long admired what recordings I’ve heard of Byron Janis, but I’ve heretofore auditioned only a handful of his numerous recordings on the RCA and Mercury labels. This set has served to fill the lacunae in my knowledge of this consummate master of the keyboard, surely one of the greatest pianists to spring up from American soil. Janis is too well known among the readers of this publication to require any extensive biographical details, but the very informative and entertaining essay by annotator Richard Dyer will fill in any gaps in any purchaser’s knowledge. Suffice it to say that Janis’s career has had its vicissitudes, mainly because of physical problems in the artist’s hands. Hiding these problems for some years, he finally tired of keeping them a secret, although they never really kept him from public performance. His 30-year absence from the recording studio is nevertheless to be deeply regretted by aficionados of his art.
The present collection assembles virtually all of his RCA recordings, which span the years 1947 through 1959. I say “virtually” because of the inexplicable omission of one Chopin Nocturne (op. 27/2) from the fourth CD of the set. Missing, too, are two other RCA items (Liszt’s
No. 5 and his
Sonetto del Petrarco 104
) that, even though they were never issued by RCA, were licensed by Philips and showed up in its controversial “Great Pianists” series some years ago. The formatting of this set has led to some serious drawbacks in this box. The only positive thing about RCA’s approach to “duplicate” the original LP issues is that the purchaser gets reproductions of each LP cover with the original program notes. However, if your eyes are anything like mine, you won’t be able to read the notes that were reduced in size from a 12-inch sleeve to a 5-inch one. I didn’t even bother trying, since I had no magnifying glass handy. Then, too, the playing times of the original LPs were on the short side, and what is spread over an 11-disc set could have easily been issued on five or six CDs, especially if the needless abridged version of the
Grand Canyon Suite,
in which Janis obviously does not play, and the two duplicated performances (the Rachmaninoff First Concerto and Liszt’s
) had been omitted. Personally, I’d rather have saved shelf space by having a thinner box, and the album covers could have easily been reproduced in the booklet, and with the original program notes given a legible point size. On the plus side, the trilingual booklet also contains numerous interesting photographs of Janis, some of which feature him with the conductors with whom he recorded, and also contains good documentation of recording dates, engineers, venues, etc.
If the powers that be at RCA really felt it necessary to duplicate the Lewis Layton-recorded Rachmaninoff First Concerto, why didn’t they give us an opportunity to sample his wonderful work (still unsurpassed and rarely equaled by any digital engineer I’ve heard) in both mono and stereo versions? After all, the original issue of the work on LM-2127 was in mono only, but my ears tell me that the recording on the CD equivalent of that disc is in stereo, as it is on the later issue of the same performance on LSC-2541.
Janis is one of those pianists I am convinced could have played
well, given his technical brilliance and innate musicality. He could be hard-driven at times, but I think never to the detriment of the piece at hand. His recorded focus, the Bach selection notwithstanding, was largely directed towards repertory from the Romantic era, but the video (mentioned below) demonstrates his idiomatic facility in early 20th-century music as well. On the commercial recordings included herein, he extracts every murmur or passionate outburst from Beethoven, every subtlety in the exquisite phrases in Chopin’s works, and every bit of panache and drama in those of Rachmaninoff. Has
ever played the Liszt
in a more electrifying manner? Especially impressive is Janis’s collaboration with Reiner/CSO in Rachmaninoff’s First Concerto, which matches or exceeds any recording I’ve ever heard, even that of Agustin Anievas, which remains a particular favorite of mine. Reiner’s orchestra support is also about as close to perfection as human beings are capable of. Hearing these performances leaves me at once both breathless and satiated—I could wish for nothing more interpretively from any of these pieces than what Janis presents to me here.
Lest I disappoint any readers aware of my special predilection for
Pictures at an Exhibition,
I will give a few more extensive comments about Janis’s rendition of that work. It is quite interesting that he recorded the work twice, and neither was issued until many years after its recording (Janis jumped ship from RCA to Mercury when he became dissatisfied with the emphasis and first choice of repertory that RCA was giving to Van Cliburn, even though Janis’s reception in the former Soviet Union was scarcely less enthusiastic than that accorded the Tchaikovsky Competition winner). There is no mention in the notes (I wish there were) why the Mussorgsky was not issued during the golden era of RCA recordings. It was even given a catalog number, LSC-2283, and had been scheduled for release in June of 1959.
Janis’s RCA recording of
is one of the earlier piano recordings of the work, and may be its first stereo recording—I have yet to ascertain whether Bachauer’s 1956 EMI recording is in true stereo. He certainly recorded it before he could have heard Richter’s electrifying live account from February of 1958. Janis, albeit to a lesser extent than did his teacher Horowitz, takes numerous liberties with the score, most of them in the form of doubling notes in the left hand
or transposing left hand octaves down one octave. Occasionally he also adds notes to the right hand, such as his transformation of the octave E dyads in measures 120 and 121 of “Baba-Yaga” to augmented triads. Greater liberties come in “Great Gate,” where he adds numerous extra chords in the left hand, and tremolo in the final measures of the work, à la Horowitz, but the most significant change, and an unwelcome one in this quarter, is his omission of the fifth promenade. Janis was obviously led astray by Ravel in this regard, but there is simply no justification for any pianist to omit an entire movement of a recognized masterpiece such as
Ravel also came to mind in “Bydło,” given the pianist’s quiet and very staccato accompanimental chords at the opening of the movement. I won’t blame Ravel for this one, though, but Rimsky-Korsakov, whose bowdlerized edition of
Janis may have been using. Lest I seem more negative about his recording of this work than the others in the set, I hasten to add that there are many brilliant things to savor in this reading. In measure 89 of “Gnomus,” I hear the most ferocious trill of any pianist I can recall. The sudden emphasis of the ascending scale in measure 13 of the left hand of “Tuilleries” produces a stunning effect. Janis’s “Ballet of Chicks” is as mercurial as any I can recall, and his doubling of the notes in the left hand of the first section of “Goldenberg” lends pomposity to the wealthy man it portrays. “Limoges,” despite not being set up by the presence of the fifth promenade, is one of the best I’ve heard, meaning that it is one of the most frenetic on record. This, then, is an important recording of
and had it been issued in 1959 when it was originally scheduled by RCA, it surely would have helped propel the work to its present popularity, just as Richter’s Sofia performance did.
Comparing the earlier RCA recording with his likewise belatedly issued Mercury recording from September of 1961, one finds very few differences. Clearly, Janis is using the same edition, with many doublings in the bass, the fifth promenade omitted, and the occasionally emended chords. Even the timing of the two versions is almost identical, the latter version being the shorter by a mere two seconds (individual movements vary a bit more than that occasionally). Interpretively, the two readings are also very similar, although in the first promenade in the Mercury recording, Janis accentuates the beginning notes of a number of the phrases, an effect that I do not care for. However, in “Il vecchio Castello” his phrasing is even more delicately shaped and caressed than in the earlier version, if possible. Pretty much all of the things that I observed in the RCA recording above apply to this later recording as well, which is also a superlative reading of the work. Janis enthusiasts will want both of them.
The set is crowned by a DVD containing
The Byron Janis Story,
a film by Peter Rosen. This fascinating documentary, replete with video clips of works that Janis never recorded commercially, traces his career, giving particular focus to the medical problems that plagued, but seemingly never slowed him down over a period of decades. It’s a most touching film, and makes an already indispensable set all the more so. If you have the least bit of interest in the piano as an instrument worthy of your attention, this set, despite the drawbacks mentioned above, is not only self-recommending, but essential to your library.
David DeBoor Canfield