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Byron Janis - The Complete RCA Album Collection


Release Date: 04/16/2013 
Label:  Rca   Catalog #: 548440   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Ludwig van BeethovenFranz SchubertGeorge GershwinFerde Grofé,   ... 
Performer:  Byron Janis
Conductor:  Fritz ReinerCharles Munch
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Chicago Symphony OrchestraBoston Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 12 
Recorded in: Mono/Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Coinciding with Byron Janis’ 85th birthday in March 2013, Sony has compiled a complete album collection encompassing the pianist’s RCA Victor recordings, which date from 1947 to 1959. Individual volumes replicate original LP contents and artwork, along with one CD devoted to Janis’ 1947 78-rpm singles, and another featuring a previously unissued Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition. However, this collection is not quite “complete”.

The booklet notes acknowledge the absence of Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 27 No. 2 (originally released on the 1956 “Byron Janis Plays Chopin” LP) without further explanation. Furthermore, the collection only includes one out of three 1957 Liszt selections (the Rigoletto Paraphrase) published for the
Read more first time in Philips’ Great Pianists series. Why these omissions? In any event, the recordings certainly uphold Janis’ youthful reputation as one of the most exciting and dynamic American pianists to have emerged on the post-war scene.

Listen to the 19-year-old Janis in 1947 shape the A minor Bach/Liszt Prelude and Fugue with a wide dynamic palette and intelligently contoured contrapuntal lines. Janis’ first Chopin “Black Key” etude traversal evokes his mentor Vladimir Horowitz in that both pianists are among the very few to take the final descending octave peroration in strict tempo (easier said than done!). But the E major Op. 10 No. 3 Etude convinces less, with its slightly fast and glib central section, and the minor chords of measures 30-31 and 34-35 rendered in major.

For his first LP, Janis chose Beethoven’s “Tempest” sonata and Schubert’s E-flat Impromptu. These bracing, virile interpretations sound as fresh and modern today as they must have 60-plus years ago. Two Beethoven sonata performances are new to CD. The Waldstein’s Rondo movement and opening Allegro con brio stem from 1955 sessions held in EMI’s Abbey Road studio, while the Introduction leading into the Rondo was recorded in 1956 at New Work’s Webster Hall. The differences in both ambience and instrument are readily apparent, but not disturbing. Janis bypasses the first movement’s exposition repeat and slightly sentimentalizes the second subject. But the Rondo is both limpid and incisive. Although the booklet notes indicate that Janis takes the coda’s rapid descending octaves articulated from the wrist, they still manage to sound like octave glissandos.

If anything, the opaque “ping” characterizing early 1950s mono EMI solo piano sessions from Abbey Road is more noticeable in the Op. 109 sonata. Out of curiosity I listened to Janis’ version alongside three other mono Op. 109s from Abbey Road by Solomon, Myra Hess, and Walter Gieseking. Janis matches Hess and Solomon’s graceful simplicity in the fantasia-like first movement, but underplays the Prestissimo. He digs deepest in the third-movement theme and variations, interweaving the sections with assiduously unified tempo relationships and applying subtle dynamic gradations and textural balances that especially tell in the long chains of trills. The C-sharp minor Scherzo’s controlled ferocity stands out among the excellent 1956 solo Chopin selections.

For the most part Janis allows Pictures at an Exhibition’s stark pianistic language to speak for itself, although he adds a few discreet octave reinforcements here and there, while reiterating sustained notes and filling in chords throughout The Great Gate at Kiev. He also emulates Ravel’s orchestration by eliminating the Promenade preceding The Market Place at Limoges.

Back in the 1950s it was fashionable to play Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with Ferde Grofé’s saccharine textual emendations, but Janis’ stylistic flair and digital prowess compensates. Janis also sails through his childhood teacher Josef Lhevinne’s signature piece, the Strauss/Schulz-Evler “Blue Danube”, with comparable aplomb and apparent lack of effort. Steel-edged articulation, nervous energy, and gauntly singing lines characterize Liszt’s Totentanz, Strauss’ Burleske (sound clip), and the Rachmaninov First and Third concertos. The Reiner-led Rachmaninov First’s coiled objectivity and stellar orchestral framework set reference standards in its day, yet Janis’ Mercury remake with Kondrashin boasts sharper, more organic tempo contrasts and even greater pianistic bravura (compare both recordings’ first-movement cadenzas and you’ll hear what I mean).

During the 1960s, critical consensus favored Janis’ Mercury Rachmaninov Third with Antal Dorati and the London Symphony Orchestra over the 1957 Charles Munch/Boston Symphony version. Although the remake displays more sophisticated soloist/ensemble dovetailing a tauter, more astringent orchestral sonority, there’s something to be said for the BSO’s tonal heft and unusually prominent, even pugnacious brass section. In both recordings, by the way, Janis observes the once-frequent, now frowned-upon third-movement cut from two bars after rehearsal number 52 up to rehearsal number 54, and wisely opts for the faster, lighter first-movement cadenza favored by Horowitz, Argerich, and the composer himself.

The Schumann concerto collaboration with Reiner makes its CD debut here. Although recorded in 1959, it was not released at the time in deference to Van Cliburn’s own Reiner-led version. Given Cliburn’s status as a hero and classical bestseller, RCA Victor basically lost interest in Janis, who in turn left the label and accepted an offer from Mercury. Eventually the Janis/Reiner Schumann came out on a limited edition fundraiser LP, and later on in RCA’s half-speed audiophile LP series. The performance’s unusual features include a brisk and forthright central Andantino grazioso that refuses to milk the big C major tune (although I prefer Janis’ slightly slower and warmer Mercury remake), and a relaxed finale where the solo piano’s unceasing sequences and cross-rhythms have plenty of room to sing and speak. Shall we assume that the legendary Ray Still is responsible for the gorgeous-beyond-belief first-movement oboe solos?

Lastly, a bonus DVD presents Peter Rosen’s documentary film The Byron Janis Story. Janis speaks candidly about his long career, his continuing struggles with arthritis, and how he has overcome both physical and emotional adversity. Indeed, Janis is open to the point of allowing the cameras into his hospital room following hand surgery. In all, it’s good to have Janis’ small yet significant body of work for RCA Victor assembled in one place and well restored, notwithstanding the questionable omissions mentioned earlier.

– Jed Distler, ClassicsToday.com

Beethoven:
Piano Sonata No. 17 in D minor, Op. 31 No. 2 'Tempest'
Piano Sonata No. 21 in C major, Op. 53 'Waldstein'
Piano Sonata No. 30 in E major, Op. 109

Brahms:
Waltz, Op. 39 No. 15 in A flat major
Waltz, Op. 39 No. 1 in B major
Waltz, Op. 39 No. 2 in E major
Waltz, Op. 39 No. 6 in C sharp major

Chopin:
Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 35 'Marche funèbre'
Impromptu No. 1 in A flat major, Op. 29
Nocturne No. 8 in D flat major, Op. 27 No. 2
Mazurka No. 45 in A minor, Op. 67 No. 4
Scherzo No. 3 in C sharp minor, Op. 39
Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23
Étude Op. 10 No. 3 in E major 'Tristesse'
Étude Op. 25 No. 3 in F major
Étude Op. 10 No. 5 in G flat major 'Black Key'
Waltz No. 3 in A minor 'Grande Valse Brillante', Op. 34 No. 2
Waltz No. 14 in E minor, Op. post., KKIVa:15, B 56
Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23
Étude Op. 10 No. 8 in F major

Gershwin:
Rhapsody in Blue

Grofe:
Grand Canyon Suite

Liszt:
Liebestraum, S541 No. 3 (Nocturne in A flat major)
Hungarian Rhapsody, S244 No. 6 in D flat major
Consolation, S. 172 No. 5 in E major
Sonetto 104 del Petrarca (Années de pèlerinage II, S. 161 No. 5)
Concert Paraphrase on Rigoletto, S.434 after Verdi's opera
Totentanz, S126 for piano & orchestra
Totentanz, S126 for piano & orchestra
Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Fritz Reiner
Liebestraum, S541 No. 3 (Nocturne in A flat major)
Hungarian Rhapsody, S244 No. 6 in D flat major

Mussorgsky:
Pictures at an Exhibition (piano version)

Rachmaninov:
Piano Concerto No. 1 in F sharp minor, Op. 1
Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Fritz Reiner
Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30
Boston Symphony Orchestr, Charles Munch

Schubert:
Impromptu in E flat major, D899 No. 2

Schumann:
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54
Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Fritz Reiner

Strauss, J, II:
An der schönen, blauen Donau, Op. 314

Strauss, R:
Burleske for Piano and orchestra in D minor
Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Fritz Reiner
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Works on This Recording

1. Sonata for Piano no 17 in D minor, Op. 31 no 2 "Tempest" by Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Byron Janis (Piano)
Period: Classical 
Written: 1802; Vienna, Austria 
2. Impromptus (4) for Piano, D 899/Op. 90: no 2 in E flat major by Franz Schubert
Performer:  Byron Janis (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1827; Vienna, Austria 
3. Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin
Performer:  Byron Janis (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1924; USA 
4. Grand Canyon Suite: Excerpt(s) by Ferde Grofé
Performer:  Byron Janis (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1931; USA 
5. Sonata for Piano no 21 in C major, Op. 53 "Waldstein" by Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Byron Janis (Piano)
Period: Classical 
Written: 1803-1804; Vienna, Austria 
6. Sonata for Piano no 2 in B flat minor, B 128/Op. 35 "Funeral March" by Frédéric Chopin
Performer:  Byron Janis (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1837-1839; Paris, France 
7. Impromptu for Piano no 1 in A flat major, B 110/Op. 29 by Frédéric Chopin
Performer:  Byron Janis (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1837; Paris, France 
8. Nocturnes (2) for Piano, Op. 27: no 2 in D flat major, B 96 by Frédéric Chopin
Performer:  Byron Janis (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1835; Paris, France 
9. Etudes (12) for Piano, Op. 25: no 3 in F major by Frédéric Chopin
Performer:  Byron Janis (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1832-1836; Paris, France 
10. Etudes (12) for Piano, Op. 10: no 8 in F major by Frédéric Chopin
Performer:  Byron Janis (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1829; Poland 
11. Etudes (12) for Piano, Op. 10: no 5 in G flat major "Black Keys" by Frédéric Chopin
Performer:  Byron Janis (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1830; Poland 
12. Etudes (12) for Piano, Op. 10: no 3 in E major, B 74 "Tristesse" by Frédéric Chopin
Performer:  Byron Janis (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1836-1839; Paris, France 
13. Scherzo for Piano no 3 in C sharp minor, B 125/Op. 39 by Frédéric Chopin
Performer:  Byron Janis (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1839; Mallorca (Majorca),  
14. Ballade for Piano no 1 in G minor, B 66/Op. 23 by Frédéric Chopin
Performer:  Byron Janis (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1831-1835 
15. An der schönen, blauen Donau, Op. 314 by Johann Strauss Jr.
Performer:  Byron Janis (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1867; Vienna, Austria 
16. Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin
Performer:  Byron Janis (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1924; USA 
17. Grand Canyon Suite by Ferde Grofé
Performer:  Byron Janis (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1931; USA 
18. Pictures at an Exhibition for Piano by Modest Mussorgsky
Performer:  Byron Janis (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1874; Russia 
19. Totentanz, S 126 by Franz Liszt
Performer:  Byron Janis (Piano)
Conductor:  Fritz Reiner
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1849/1859; Weimar, Germany 
20. Concerto for Piano no 1 in F sharp minor, Op. 1 by Sergei Rachmaninov
Performer:  Byron Janis (Piano)
Conductor:  Fritz Reiner
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1891/1917; Russia 
Date of Recording: 03/02/1957 
21. Concerto for Piano no 3 in D minor, Op. 30 by Sergei Rachmaninov
Performer:  Byron Janis (Piano)
Conductor:  Charles Munch
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Boston Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1909; Russia 

Customer Reviews

Average Customer Review:  2 Customer Reviews )
 The Young Poet with Chops June 5, 2013 By Brien Chomica (Winnipeg, MB) See All My Reviews "These RCA recordings of the early years of Mr. Janis' career are a very sweet collection for those of us who know him more familiarly on the Mercury label. Before he went to USSR for triumphant concerto performances, he had an established base in America. When I was in University, my friends and I enthused over his Rach One with Reiner, and the Strauss Burleske. These are amazing performances. Now 35 years later when I hear them, they still set the bar high for performances. -- The Chopin B-flat minor Sonata is in perfect tempo (in my humble opinion) and in many respects superior to Horowitz' (with whom Mr. Janis studied). -- This entire collection is a total delight to have in one set. Mr. Janis, a poet (and a fire-eater when necessary)at the piano,is one of the great pianists of the 20th-century." Report Abuse
 Thrilling, but incomplete May 5, 2013 By T. Drake (South Euclid, OH) See All My Reviews "Byron Janis was one of several American pianists whose performing careers were curtailed: he, Gary Graffman, and Leon Fleisher all suffered from hand ailments. The greatest of all, William Kapell, died in a plane crash in 1953. This 11 CD set covers Janis' recordings for RCA from 1947 until 1959. At age 16, Janis performed in a concert with the Pittsburgh Symphony conducted by Lorin Maazel - then aged 14. Vladimir Horowitz was in the audience and immediately invited Janis to study with him - their studies lasted four years. It's easy to understand why Horowitz took a shine to the young Janis. The nervous energy that informed much of the younger Horowitz's playing is evident in Janis' early work. (For decades, there were rumors to the effect that Horowitz's interest in Janis was more physical than musical, and that the two pianists were lovers. But as Janis revealed in his autobiography, he actually engaged in a brief yet intense affair with Horowitz's wife, Wanda. When Horowitz learned of the affair, Janis' studies with him were terminated - although they reconciled several years later.) To his credit, Horowitz never tried to impose his sound on Janis, and he encouraged the younger pianist to seek out his own style and "make your own mistakes". Nevertheless, Horowitz's shadow hangs over several of the recordings in this collection, most notably Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, where Janis makes a number of textual emendations similar to those made by Horowitz. That may be the reason the recording sat unreleased in the vault until now - I can think of no other, as it's an outstanding performance in excellent sound (it is the only stereophonic solo recording in the set). Janis has never been known as a Beethoven specialist, but the Tempest, Waldstein, and Op. 109 Sonatas are straightforward and stylish. Janis makes a convincing case for playing the glissandi in the Waldstein's last movement as prestissimo octaves - at least for him as I doubt many other pianists could pull it off. Janis masterfully holds the structure of Chopin's B-flat minor Sonata together - which is not easy even for old masters. There are a number of bon-bons in this set, including Schulz-Evler's arrangement of the Blue Danube Waltz. Janis makes these works seem more than encores, but miniature masterpieces - which is what they are. Janis had an excellent working relationship with Fritz Reiner - who was not an easy collaborator. All but one of the concerto recordings in this set feature Reiner at the podium. Their recording of Schumann's Piano Concerto was inexplicably held back from release until 1983. The performance is ardent, poetic, virtuosic, and belies the comment that the work is a "ladies concerto". Janis is one of the few pianists to record Richard Strauss' Burleske for piano and orchestra. One wonders if he learned the piece, which is neither pianistic nor particularly interesting, at the behest of Fritz Reiner - who was recording loads of Strauss. Janis is light years ahead of Rudolf Serkin technically, the Chicago Symphony under Reiner wound tight as a drum. Likewise for Liszt's Totentanz. Janis' recording of Rachmaninoff's First Concerto remains, along with Zimerman's and the composer's own, my go-to recording of the piece. The solo passages in the outer movements crackle with electricity, with Reiner drawing sparks from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, while the middle movement has an aristocratic, non-mushy poetry worthy of the composer himself. Janis' recording of Rachmaninoff's Third Concerto (accompanied by the Boston Symphony under Munch), was bound to invite comparison to Horowitz, yet Janis more than holds his own - and this version is sonically far superior to any of Horowitz's recordings. This is a "dry-ice" version of the Rachmaninoff Third, which burns while coolly holding something back in reserve. Only several cuts, which were customary at the time, prevent this from being a first choice - at least for me. When Van Cliburn's career skyrocketed after the 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition, RCA shunted Janis aside in favor of Cliburn. Making lemonade out of lemons, Janis signed with Mercury Living Presence and rerecorded much of the repertoire heard here, along with numerous other works. Generally, those recordings are even more noteworthy than these. As is common with Sony's Original Album issues, the original front and back covers are included. The sequencing is also replicated - which means short playing times. (It also means a disparity with the Rachmaninoff 1st/Strauss Burleske album, which is listed as "LM" indicating mono, but is in fact in stereo.) A caveat: For reasons unexplained, Sony has not included Chopin's Nocturne, Op. 27, No. 2, which was included on one of the LPs. The sound varies considerably, which is understandable given the advance in recording technology from 78RPM discs to stereo tape. The Mussorgsky, Rachmaninoff Third, Liszt Totentanz, and Schumann Concerto sound the best, while the Rachmaninoff First and Strauss Burleske suffer from harsh fortes and a papery piano tone. A booklet includes details on each album and an appreciation written by Richard Dyer. Also included is a DVD documentary. The price point is significantly higher for this box than for similar sets, doubtless because many recordings are being issued on CD for the first time." Report Abuse
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