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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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.

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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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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa