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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Piano Concertos: No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18a [30’51]; No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30b [37’45]. Preludes:c E flat, Op. 23 No. 6 [2’49]; C sharp minor, Op. 3 No. 2 [3’50].
Byron Janis (piano);
aMinneapolis Symphony Orchestra, bLondon Symphony Orchestra/Antal Dorati.
Rec. acNorthrop Auditorium, Minneapolis, 17-18 April 1960, b 16-17 June 1961. ADD
From LPs: Mercury AMS16109 and AMS16071
MERCURY LIVING PRESENCE SACD 470 639-2 [75’18]


Struck down at the height of his career by psoriatic arthritis, Byron Janis, despite a come-back disc some years ago, remains a ‘what might have been’ pianist. Gramophone spoke of his Rachmaninov 3 as ‘surely among the few truly great Rachmaninov Thirds on disc’. Janis studied with Horowitz while a teenager in the 1940s and the influence is there. Yet there is a subtlety to Janis’s playing that reveals a distinct intimate side of Rachmaninov without belittling the virtuoso element.

Janis’s technique is never in doubt. It is a joy to hear a pianist who uses such sovereign means to interpret a composer whose music is so obviously close to his heart. Dorati partners Janis in the concertos - the main body of the disc - and is infinitely sensitive to his soloist’s needs, both in terms of tempo fluctuation and balance; the latter can be tricky in Rachmaninov.

The Third Concerto is placed first in playing order. Janis shades the opening octave melody superbly – it is obvious from the off that he is completely at home here. Finger-clarity is a model of its kind. This is no small achievement in this work; listen to the voice-leading around 8’30. Janis’s light touch is constantly illuminating. The cadenza is scintillating; a pity the woodwind contributions are not as subtle as can be imagined.

The slow movements to both concertos have a lovely sense of flow, with Janis sitting on the line between improvised and controlled. Dorati is fully in on the deal. You will hear detail here you may not have noticed in other recordings or live performances. The cadenza in the Third finds Janis letting his hair down. The lead-in to the finale is magnificent. It is in this finale that power and musicality merge miraculously; Janis is not one to pound the breast! There is a superb sense of the dance about the entire finale, and the natural ebb and flow of the final pages has to be heard to be believed. The LSO is on top form throughout.

If the Second Concerto does not quite attain the same heights, it is memorable nonetheless. The Minneapolis sound is a little more abrasive, particularly noticeable in the big cello melodies, but the sweeping romanticism comes over intact. The end of the first movement will tell you whether the recording will detract for you or not, as it is there that real lack of depth is fully apparent.

The slow movement is the highlight, pure magic from first to last; in fact the close itself is infinitely touching. The same light touch remarked upon in the Third is present here, working to tremendous advantage in the finale.

Two concerto accounts where crass virtuosity is eschewed in favour of a warmer response, yet where the music can and does scintillate and excite.

Two Preludes round off this superb disc. The E flat from the Op. 23 set is magnificent balm after the travails of Rach 2; the famous C sharp minor is a study in chordal grading.

Masterly Rachmaninov, to sit alongside your Richters and, if you are that way inclined, your Ashkenazys. Even your Volodos in No. 3 (Berliner Philharmoniker/Levine). Recommended.

Colin Clarke

see also review by Rob Barnett


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