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.

JJP

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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.

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.

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Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa