Day 18 – Concerto No. 1 in F-Sharp Minor, Op. 1 + Burleske (CD 18)

I’m listening to a pianist today that I hadn’t heard of before: Byron Janis (1928 – ).

Mr. Janis recently celebrated his 93rd birthday!

He’s considered one of the great pianists of the 20th century. At one point, according to his entry on Wikipedia, he was even a student of famed Russian pianist Vladimir Horowitz.

How did I not hear about this guy?

According to his Wiki bio,

Byron Janis (born March 24, 1928) is an American classical pianist. He made several recordings for RCA Victor and Mercury Records, and occupies two volumes of the Philips series Great Pianists of the 20th Century. His discography covers repertoire from Bach to David W. Guion and includes major piano concertos from Mozart to Rachmaninoff and Liszt to Prokofiev.

Janis studied with Abraham Litow until he was 8 years old. Vladimir Horowitz heard Janis play Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 2 in Pittsburg, and immediately took him as his first pupil. Janis studied with Horowitz from 1944 until 1948.

Janis was also a composer. He wrote music for musical theater, including the score for a 1993 Off-Broadway adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, for television shows, and in collaboration on several pieces with Cy Coleman.

In 1967, Janis accidentally unearthed what The New York Times called “That rarest of all musical items…”, two previously unknown manuscripts of published Chopin waltzes (Op. 18 and Op. 70, No. 1) at the Chateau de Thoiry in France. Several years later, Janis found the same two waltzes in different versions at Yale University. These manuscripts are published together under one cover in Frédéric Chopin, ed. Byron Janis, The Most Dramatic Musical Discovery of the Age, Envolve Books, 1978.

Janis and his wife, Maria Cooper, daughter of screen actor Gary Cooper, wrote his autobiography Chopin and Beyond: My Extraordinary Life in Music and the Paranormal, which was released in November 2010. In the DVD A Voyage With Byron Janis, he hosts a musical journey through Chopin’s life. Martin Scorsese is developing a Byron Janis Biopic for Paramount Pictures from a script by Peter Glanz. The project is based on Janis’ autobiography.

Wow. I’ve been listening intently to Classical music for over a decade. In all of my studies (all of Mozart’s works, all of Beethoven’s works, all nine of Bruckner’s most well-known symphonies, Haydn, Bach – you name it), I don’t recall reading the name Byron Janis.

I feel gypped. Shortchanged. Deprived.

Especially since he was not only highly regarded even by Horowitz, but he also discovered something musically unique and remarkable and he’s the subject of a biopic by Martin Scorsese.

Again, why haven’t I ever heard of Byron Janis?

I’m going to have to make up for lost time.

The Objective Stuff

These two performances (Rachmaninoff Concerto No. 1 and Strauss Burleske) were recorded in Orchestra Hall on March 2, 1957 (Rach) and March 4, 1957 (Strauss). Pianist Byron Janis was 29 when he played them. Fritz Reiner was 69 when he conducted them.

From its entry on Wikipedia,

Sergei Rachmaninoff composed his Piano Concerto No. 1 in F♯ minor, Op. 1, in 1891, at age 18. He dedicated the work to Alexander Siloti. He revised the work thoroughly in 1917.

The public was already familiar with the Second and Third Concertos before Rachmaninoff revised the First in 1917. The First is very different from his later works; in exchange for less memorable melodies, this concerto incorporates elements of youthful vivacity and impetuosity.

The differences between the 1890–1891 original and the 1917 revision reveal a tremendous amount about the composer’s development in the intervening years. There is a considerable thinning of texture in the orchestral and piano parts and much material that made the original version diffuse and episodic is removed.

Of all the revisions Rachmaninoff made to various works, this one was perhaps the most successful. Using an acquired knowledge of harmony, orchestration, piano technique and musical form, he transformed an early, immature composition into a concise, spirited work. Nevertheless, he was perturbed that the revised work did not become popular with the public. He said to Albert Swan, “I have rewritten my First Concerto; it is really good now. All the youthful freshness is there, and yet it plays itself so much more easily. And nobody pays any attention. When I tell them in America that I will play the First Concerto, they do not protest, but I can see by their faces that they would prefer the Second or Third.”

From its entry on Wikpedia,

The Burleske in D minor is a composition for piano and orchestra written by Richard Strauss in 1885-86, when he was 21.

The work’s original title was Scherzo in D minor, and it was written for Hans von Bülow, who had appointed Strauss assistant conductor of the Meiningen Orchestra. However, von Bülow considered it a “complicated piece of nonsense” and refused to learn it. He said the piano part was “Lisztian” and “unplayable”, particularly for a pianist with a small handspan (Strauss says that von Bülow could barely reach an octave). Strauss rehearsed the work with the Meiningen Orchestra, conducting and playing the solo part himself, but then set it aside. He wrote to von Bülow: “[G]iven an outstanding (!) pianist, and a first-rate (!) conductor, perhaps the whole thing will not turn out to be the unalloyed nonsense I took it for after the first rehearsal. After the first run-through, I was totally discouraged.”

Von Bülow was still not impressed. In a letter to Johannes Brahms in January 1891, he wrote: “Strauss’s Burleske decidedly has some genius in it, but in other respects it is horrifying.”

The Subjective Stuff

Recording quality: 5
Overall musicianship: 5
CD booklet notes: 2.5
CD “album cover” information: 4
How does this make me feel: 5

This CD is the reason why I often undertake these musical explorations.

When I can discover something or someone new, I’m thrilled.

These compositions were engaging, often even electrifying. Even the Richard Strauss Burleske was enjoyable.

I’d listen to this CD again. And that’s my standard for all music, really: if I’d listen to it again. I’m picky when it comes to music. I know what I like, and why. Life is too short to listen to music that doesn’t captivate me.

This album does. Highly recommended!

By the way, NPR wrote a fascinating article about Byron Janis’ supernatural experiences, particularly regarding Chopin, whom Janis seems to believe he was in a past life. It makes for interesting reading.

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