Byron Janis: The Chopin Collection (CD review)

Byron Janis, piano. EMI Classics 50999 6 02898 2 7.

Although American pianist Byron Janis has recorded for several companies--including RCA, Mercury, and EMI--it is for his work with Mercury in the Fifties and Sixties that I personally know of his work. I have long been a fan of his Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, and Schumann recordings, but I seem to have lost track of him after his lifelong bout with arthritis flared up in the Seventies and he went into semiretirement. But in the mid Nineties he recorded these Chopin pieces for EMI, and he apparently has been working continuously ever since. This is all the remarkable considering that he celebrated his eighty-fifth birthday the year of this writing.

Anyway, what we have here is a collection of Chopin mazurkas, nocturnes, waltzes, and impromptus that Janis recorded in 1996 and 1999. EMI released most of them in the 1996 album Byron Janis Plays Chopin, now out of print; and in this 2012 rerelease the company adds several more pieces that Janis recorded a few years later after the pianist accidentally discovered two unknown versions of Chopin waltzes. Altogether, the eighteen selections on the disc provide a superb representation both of Chopin’s brilliance and Janis’s artistry.

My own favorite pianists in Chopin have long been Maurizio Pollini and Arthur Rubinstein, but after hearing Mr. Janis, a pupil of Vladimir Horowitz, I can easily see how one might change one’s allegiance. Janis’s smooth, easy, gentle, flowing style here belies his reputation for fierce drive and nervous tension. In Chopin, at least, the man remains relaxed yet completely in control.

The program opens with the Mazurka No. 1 in G minor, Op. 24, which Janis plays at a moderate pace; no helter-skelter showmanship for its own sake here. He follows it with the Nocturne in E flat major No. 2, Op. 55, maintaining the same low-key manner as in the mazurka, allowing the music to float softly to our ears.

“Above all,” says Janis in a booklet note, “the essence of Chopin’s music was zal, the Polish word for ‘bittersweet.’ It expresses all of the tenderness and humility of regret borne with resignation. ... It was his way of depicting the tormented history of his beloved Poland.” And so it goes, on through the rest of the selections, each a delicately polished gem. My own favorite tracks, for what it’s worth? The Nocturne in B major No. 2, Op. 32; the Waltz in A minor No. 2, Op. 34; the Mazurka in B flat minor No. 4, Op. 24; the Nocturne in F sharp No. 2, Op. 15; the Nocturne in D flat major No. 2, Op. 27; and the two concluding Waltzes--G flat major No. 1, Op. 70, and E flat major, Op. 18 “Grande valse brilliante.” Lovers of Chopin’s music can hardly find better.

The piano sound is full and rich, the EMI engineers having well captured the instrument’s mellow, resonant tone. It’s not too close, either, and doesn’t stretch clear across the room as some piano recordings are wont to do. Instead, the instrument sits comfortably before us as a real piano might, producing warm, calming music.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa