in a time when many lament the passing of a great era of pianists, along comes Byron Janis to remind us of them. Janis is one of yesterday’s pianists. He had a brilliant career beginning in the 1950s, and the recordings he made for Mercury in that period are legendary, especially a dynamic performance of Rachmaninoff’s First Piano Concerto with Fritz Reiner. In the mid-’70s, he developed arthritis in his hands, and rather than stop performing, struggled on for a decade before increasingly vicious reviews and creeping immobility convinced him to stop.
In retirement Janis served a brief stint as director of the Waterloo Festival and, improbably, wrote a musical theater version of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” that played briefly on Broadway. In the summer of 1995, Janis discovered drugs that eased his arthritis, allowing him to go into the studio and make this disc of Chopin mazurkas, nocturnes and waltzes, his first recording in 34 years. The disc confirms Janis’ former glory.
Mazurkas aren’t something you can really teach. Sure, the notes are learnable, and most any pianist can wrap his fingers around the basic meter. But there’s something elusive and undefinable about how mazurkas get from their first to their second beats, how that little nudge in the middle of the bar propels the line forward, how a slight hesitation dropped into the accompaniment sets up the melody and lets it exhale. Jazz played from written scores is only an imitation of a feeling; likewise, mazurkas read from the page are plastic flowers at best. The late classical pianist Arthur Rubinstein had it right — less concerned about hitting a few wrong notes than he was about expressing his musicality, he had a way of playing mazurkas that made you smell them before they reached your ear.
It’s natural that Janis has turned to these smaller Chopin works for his return to recording. He has always been strongly identified with the composer, and, like Rubinstein, understands the importance of involving all the senses.
The Mazurka in C Major, Opus 56, No. 2 shimmers along, never in straight lines, set in glinting colors. The Mazurka in C Sharp Minor, Opus 30, No. 4 is a whiff of Polish nationalism. The Waltz in A Flat Major, Opus 69, No. 1 is slightly underplayed, giving it a baggy texture that begs contemplation rather than movement. And the Nocturne in D Flat Major, Opus 27, No. 2 is held sweet in the mouth as it gradually dissolves.
There are as many nocturnes on this disc as there are mazurkas (six), and they, along with three waltzes, are an interesting study in the subtle differences between the three types of pieces — at one end there’s the rhythmic vitality of the waltz, at the other the languorous unfolding of the nocturne. In the middle, ambiguously straddling them both, are the mazurkas.
But surely that is too pedantic a way of classifying these performances that seem so naturally expressed on “Byron Janis Plays Chopin.” Every pianist plays Chopin, but few express him so eloquently.
June 3, 1997