Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3 (CD review)

Byron Janis, piano; Charles Munch, Boston Symphony Orchestra. HDTT.

There has never been a lot of disagreement about Byron Janis's two primary stereo interpretations of the Rachmaninov Third Piano Concerto--the earlier, 1957 RCA account with Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony remastered here by HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) and the slightly later, 1961 Mercury version with Antal Dorati and the London Symphony. Listeners have enjoyed both recordings almost equally over the years and both have received strong critical acclaim. No, what disagreement there is comes in which of the two is actually better. There, you may get some argument, as taste differs.

My own early introduction to the two Janis recordings came in the LP era, sometime in the mid Sixties. At that time, I favored the earlier rendering with Munch for its performance, which I found powerful yet still lyrical, and the one with Dorati for its cleaner, clearer sound. The "however" is that I could hardly stand to listen to Janis's RCA LP with Munch because of its bright edginess and noisy vinyl surface, and I thought Janis's Mercury performance with Dorati was a little too brash and reckless by comparison. So I was never completely satisfied with either LP.

Now, we have the HDTT remastering of Janis/Munch, and all is right again with the world. I can have my cake (the Janis/Munch recording) and eat it, too (listen to it without fatigue).

For those of you not fully acquainted with Mr. Janis, his Web site describes him thusly: "Byron Janis is internationally renowned as one of the world's greatest pianists. He made his orchestral debut at age 15 with Toscanini's NBC Symphony Orchestra and, the following year, was chosen by Vladimir Horowitz as his first student. At 18, he became the youngest artist ever signed to a contract by RCA Victor Records. Two years later, in 1948, he made his Carnegie Hall debut which was hailed as an unparalleled success. He has played with every major symphony orchestra in both the U.S. and abroad.

Byron Janis
"Mr. Janis was the first American artist chosen to participate in the 1960 Cultural Exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union and was hailed on the front page of The New York Times as, 'an ambassador in breaking down cold war barriers.' His many recordings appear on the RCA and Mercury Phillips labels. His two latest recordings for EMI are 'Byron Janis Plays Chopin,' which received National Public Radio's 'Performance Today Critics Choice Award' and the Chopin/Liszt CD 'Byron Janis True Romantic.'"

As far as the music goes, the Russian pianist, composer, and conductor Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) wrote his Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor in 1909, and it quickly picked up a reputation for its difficulty in playing. Today, however, most pianists take it in stride, and there are any number of fine recordings of it, Janis's among them.

Janis's interpretation is basically a lyrical one, although he is fully up the big virtuosic parts, too. Yet, as I say, he seems a touch more in control with Munch than he does in his later Mercury recording with Dorati. Moreover, Munch and the Boston Symphony provide him with a matchlessly fluid, velvety accompaniment coated with splashes of Romantic color. This is a performance with no sign of grandstanding yet one that keeps you riveted with its poetic insight and beauty.

In fact, Janis's is an astonishing performance, one that anybody interested in this work owes it to himself to hear. It may not quite sizzle the way Argerich's account does or Horowitz's or the composer's own (mono), but it makes up for it by being better proportioned than most, combining the right amount of vigorous showmanship and flourish it needs with the melodic introspection so necessary, too.

I love the performance, and now I love the sound. It's a winning recording.

Drawbacks of the HDTT disc? Only the same one I've mentioned before about HDTT's products. Namely, they most often provide just the material found on the original tapes or LP's and nothing more. While it has become common practice among most of the record companies these days to include two Rachmaninov concertos on a single CD, the folks at HDTT give us merely the one concerto, which lasts but a little over thirty-seven minutes. Still, if it's simply the concerto you want, you won't find it sounding any better than here.

RCA recorded the concerto in 1957, and HDTT remastered it in DSD (Direct Stream Digital) from an RCA 15ips 2-track tape. Sonically, this is nothing like the old LP I remember. This remastering is smooth and natural, with a pleasingly resonant warmth that gives it a realistic ambience. I love the sound, the Boston Symphony spread out widely behind the soloist, the pianist well integrated into the surroundings and not too far out in front of the other players as so often happens in concertos. Frequency balance, dynamics, and overall clarity are also quite good, so anyone, like me, who recalls the old LP as being too bright or hard or edgy should have no fears about this remaster.

For further information on HDTT products, prices, discs, and downloads in a variety of formats, you can visit their Web site at http://www.highdeftapetransfers.com/.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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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 ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine 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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa