Byron Janis was born in 1928 at McKeesport, Pennsylvania. His
zenith appears to have been during the 1960s. He was of the
same generation as Van Cliburn, Graffman and Fleisher – the
latter also suffering problems with his hands.
Janis’s triumphs in Moscow during the height of the Cold War
left an indelible impression as a result of the recordings made
there. In 1973 he was afflicted psoriatic arthritis in both
hands and wrists which ultimately brought his performing career
to a close. His last recording was made in 1970 for EMI. In
1986, he became a spokesperson for the Arthritis Foundation
as its National Ambassador to the Arts. He wrote the music for
a musical theatre production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame
and also composed the score for the film-documentary The
True Gen: Cooper and Hemingway – a 20 Year Friendship. He
married the daughter of Gary Cooper.
A student of Horowitz for three years, phenomenally gifted and
celebrated he made a handful of LPs for Mercury Living Presence.
His technical team was led by Cozart and Fine and their triumphs
on location in Moscow and in London and Minneapolis are reflected
in this set of analogue originals. The wallet style box has
muscular claims on your bank account now that the five individual
Mercury CDs are difficult to lay hands on.
Janis has a resounding touch as well as opalescent delicacy
when required. He is recorded close-up and personal and is superbly
partnered by the London Symphony Orchestra and Dorati in Rachmaninov
3. Janis rips into the part with awe-inspiring technique and
artistic yield. Nothing is allowed to pass as commonplace whether
limelight melody or chuggingly stolid ostinato. To sample the
best from among the best try from 10:40 in the finale of No.
3. Dorati draws a crackingly coordinated barking report from
the LSO brass at the start of the finale.
Janis’s Rachmaninov Second begins almost impassively - certainly
modestly. The weight of the Minneapolis strings instantly captivates
as it also does in the precise stereo by-play of the finale.
Janis tends to be less than probing in the middle movement and
he is not helped by a vibrato-laden flute. No such reservations
about Janis’s Rachmaninov No. 1 which has all the volatility,
fire and heady poetry of the Third. The shrapnel dazzle and
euphoric tumbling complexity of the finale is glorious. Much
the same applies to the Prokofiev 3 with its echoes of Walton
in his Sinfonia Concertante. Kondrashin drives the Moscow
Philharmonic Orchestra mercilessly but has time for gawky charm
in the middle movement. Janis has charisma in spades in the
finale. The Schumann and the Tchaikovsky are in the same exalted
league. Again the pianist’s breathtaking skills, the spot-on
yet life-enhancing orchestral contribution and the recording
all conspire to make this a special listening experience. There’s
nothing anonymous about this music-making. An almost cosy Arabeske
is sandwiched between the two concertos. For fear that my
earlier comments might have you concluding that there is insufficient
dynamic contrast you need only listen to the whisper quiet Andante
semplice to be reassured. The fourth and final disc offer
the meretricious yet sentimentally entertaining two Liszt concertos
which Janis despatches with all the élan and tireless confidence
you would expect. The Second Piano Concerto is a finer work
with more musical substance and it again shines in the hands
of Janis and the Rozhdestvensky whether in elfin display, thunderous
triumph or melancholy swoon. The recording in this case brings
out a certain shrillness in the more demonstrative movements.
The Pictures bristle with grainy character and phenomenal
virtuosity. It shines from an artist who seems to have no need
to struggle with technique.
Microphone placement is ideal for it picks up detail in a glowing
macro focus that reminds me of the best of Decca recordings
of the 1960s and 1970s .
These are drawn from analogue tapes and the music signal is
underpinned with a soft hiss – more a cradle than a distraction.
Satisfying notes from Ates Orga.
I doubt you will again see these fine recordings as inexpensively
and as classily packaged as they are here. These are classic
fifty-year-old recordings of performances without a hint of
autopilot about them. The set demands your consideration.
dedicated to Byron Janis