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CD Reviews

Music Library Reviews: Byron Janis

In this series, Classical 91.7's music librarian Chris Hathaway reviews new additions to our ever-growing CD library. This month, Chris reviews Byron Janis: The Complete RCA Album Collection.

Byron Janis: The Complete RCA Album Collection. Chicago Symphony Orchestra,  Boston Symphony Orchestra. Conductors, Fritz Reiner and Charles Munch. RCA 548440.

Purchase on Arkiv Music.

It is certainly gratifying to find in the catalogue, after an absence of twenty years, probably one of the best recordings of the Schumann Piano Concerto ever made, as well as a stunning Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition that never saw the light of day until now. Pictures, taped in 1958 and scheduled for a release in June 1959, was coupled with Liszt’s Rigoletto paraphrase. 

There are plenty of surprises: recordings long unknown, long out of the catalogue.  A traversal of the Beethoven Waldstein Sonata (C major, op. 63) and the vastly more introspective op. 109 in E offers, in the Waldstein, a conception that is at once “orchestral” (especially in the sound of repeated eighth note chords that defines the first movement) and “pianistic” (everywhere, particularly in the brief but delectable song that is the second movement). These Beethoven sonatas were taped at EMI’s Abbey Road studios in 1954 and ’55; another Beethoven Sonata, the Tempest in d minor from the op. 31 group of three sonatas, was recorded in 1950 and initially released as a ten-inch LP—but the remastering has a devastating clarity, plenty of focus and a particularly arresting and prominent bass. An exquisite Schubert Impromptu (D. 899/2 in E-flat) fills out this disc.  There is Andrei Schulz-Evler’s Blue Danube paraphrase (recorded in 1952 but inexplicably not released on records until five years later), in which he dares to surpass his legendary teacher Josef Lhévinne.  There is a Chopin second sonata (b-flat minor) that is at once heroic and lyrical.  And there is the Liszt transcription of the Bach a-minor organ prelude and fugue, presumably taken down in the direct-to-disc mode of recording prevalent until the late 78-r.p.m. era, at the very outset of his career at the age of nineteen. It is a marvel of clarity and sheer pianistic brilliance, with as much Bach as Liszt in it.  This, and a small group of Chopin pieces, constituted Janis’ very first recordings.

Because of RCA’s desire to re-create the formats—jackets, labels, etc.—of the original releases as closely as possible, certain recordings appear more than once (Rachmaninoff first concerto with Reiner and the Chicago Symphony, Liszt’s Totentanz with the same conductor and orchestra).  Some of them have been reincarnated on CD before; others have been unavailable for years. 

The accompanying film (DVD)—Peter Rosen’s The Byron Janis Story—is an account of the pianist’s grappling with threats to his very ability to do the things he was meant to do (and would do, with more than dazzling brilliance), both as a boy and as a man.  At the age of eleven, Byron Janis’ left hand went through a glass door.  Surgery was performed immediately, and nerve damage was so extensive that the fifth finger of that hand remained numb and inflexible. He was told to forget about playing the piano.  By then the prodigy had passed from the ministrations of the Josef Lhévinne and his wife and artistic partner Rosina to those of Adele Marcus (well-known in pianistic circles for her technical exercises), who believed in this man who was trapped in a boy’s body as much as he believed in himself. 

In 1967, Byron Janis discovered two Chopin waltzes in manuscript in a château outside Paris.  These were apparently earlier drafts of the published versions; it made worldwide headlines.  Six years later, he found manuscripts of those same pieces in a collection at Yale University, where he had gone to teach a master class.  They were duly authenticated; this time, the headlines were muted.

It was about the time of the discovery of the Yale manuscripts that Byron Janis discovered something else: that his manual dexterity was again, after a very long time, under serious attack.  It was eventually diagnosed as psoriatic arthritis.  Determined to keep going, Janis kept his illness secret and sought treatment.  Ultimately, he underwent five surgeries on his hands.  At eighty-five, he can still play, but is probably not up to managing the Schulz-Evler arabesques or the Rachmaninoff concertos.  He has made to all-Chopin discs for EMI and is said to have completed a third.  A Janis recital of a few years ago included a Mozart sonata, a few selections from Albéniz’ Ibéria and a Chopin group, among other things; the Albéniz pieces, tortuously difficult, were found to have “muddied textures” by one reviewer, who also praised the Chopin miniatures as the most memorable items of the evening. 

Byron Janis is not a man willing to admit defeat. An artist who can have a glorious career with a fifth finger of the left hand that had to be forced to be respond would not be expected to.  In the midst of his struggle with the merciless disease, he discovered that he could write music.  He did some songs, and eventually contributed the score for a musical.  Today, he says he wants to write piano music, and is said to be thinking about a large symphonic work.  He has not lost the young man’s sense of wonder that informs his long-unheard 1952 recording of the Chopin g-minor Ballade, which also evinces a sense of confidence and mastery.  The fusion of several finger joints and the reduction in size of one of his thumbs may not permit him to play that particular piece as he once did, but Byron Janis would not be Byron Janis if he strayed from the close proximity of the 88 keys.  The radiance emanating from his face, in the video, as he is wheeled in a hospital bed with his left hand and arm heavily bandaged and temporarily immobile, shows that he is going through what he is going through to preserve himself — and that he’s serious and committed.

Janis is one of very few pupils of Vladimir Horowitz who have survived that master’s overwhelming personality. (He was, in fact, the very first Horowitz pupil; Horowitz’ pedagogical fees were assumed by a patron.)  Horowitz was in the audience for one of Janis’ first concerto appearances (Janis was sixteen then), in which he played the Rachmaninoff second concerto with the Pittsburgh Symphony under a fourteen-year-old conductor named Lorin Maazel—-who would become that orchestra’s music director many years later. At about the same time, he was taken under the wing of Samuel Chotzinoff, then general music director for the NBC radio network and brother-in-law to Jascha Heifetz.  He played privately for Arturo Toscanini and had a guest appearance with the NBC Symphony, but probably not under the legendary Maestro.  Chotzinoff and others advised him not to make a Carnegie Hall début until he had fifty professional engagements under his belt, which is exactly the path he followed.  He was twenty years old when that triumph came.

Missing from this collection are some Liszt pieces—notably the Petrarch Sonnet 104 from the Années de pélérinage collection, about as stunning an account of that tone painting as could be hoped for.  There are, however, a Liebestraum No. 3 that sounds effortless and a delightfully piquant Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6 in D-flat. 

While Janis’ whole temperament is romantic, and he has always seemed most effective in romantic repertory, his Beethoven is a revelation in strength and force (the seemigly effortless octave passages in the outer movements of the Waldstein) and of subtlety in the delicate and exquisite handling of the songs in the last movement of op. 109.  Janis was in his late twenties at the time of those recordings but already a very finished artist. The execution of the octaves might be divined as a Horowitz legacy, but the feeling for classical form is clearly —at least partially— owing to the influence of Adele Marcus, whom Janis describes as “a classicist”.  His cordial relationship with Fritz Reiner, who finished his career as music director of the Chicago Symphony, is indicative of the kind of musician Janis was.  Reiner was an extremely thorough musician who never entered a rehearsal without knowing precisely what he had to do and what he wanted to do with a score, and expected those with whom he collaborated—whether orchestral musicians or soloists—to be of like mind.  Janis had devised a kind of sound reflector to help him to hear the orchestra better.  He was, at his first rehearsal with Reiner, in terror that the autocrat would demand that he get rid of it or belittle it.  Instead, Reiner merely asked what it was and accepted it once Janis explained it.  Reiner’s liking for large orchestral canvases also made him a compatible partner for Janis.  Their account of Richard Strauss’ Burleske, which Janis still calls “one of my better recordings”, is hair-raising. 

Charles Munch, music director of the Boston Symphony during the time of Janis’ association with RCA, was an entirely different kind of conductor.  He did not plan; more than that, he didn’t believe in planning.  At their recording of the Rachmaninoff third concerto during the final week of 1957, Munch began the third movement at a faster tempo than they had rehearsed.  Janis recalls that he could have stopped Munch and told him that he was taking an impossibly fast tempo—-but he rose to the challenge and carried on.  Indeed, he more than carried on, as you can hear on the recording (which was previously reincarnated on CD, in an issue with new liner notes by Janis himself).

Janis left RCA Victor in 1959, which might explain why his recordings of the Schumann concerto and Pictures at an Exhibition were not released for many years.  Van Cliburn had won the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958 and was signed by RCA, threatening Janis’ eclipse (at least where RCA Victor was concerned).  Mercury Records made him an offer, which he accepted, which ended with a spectacular on-location recording with the Moscow Philharmonic—-in Moscow.  He has a copious discography with Mercury, including another Pictures and many concertos.  Many of them have appeared as compact discs. 

A novelty of sorts, unavailable for years and released on RCA’s short-lived Bluebird Classics label, is an amazingly crisp Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue with Hugo Winterhalter and his orchestra, a recording dating from 1953.  The entire contents of the original LP are given, as well as the original jacket, filling out the disc with Winterhalter and his band playing three movements from Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite—-the only tracks in the entire anthology that have nothing to do with Mr. Janis.

RCA’s compilation is a fitting tribute to a man who continues to fight and refuses to accept infirmity.  It has so many high points that it is impossible to single out one or two.