Byron Janis plays Prokofiev and Rachmaninov Piano Concertos

by | Feb 9, 2006 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

PROKOFIEV: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major; RACHMANINOV: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini; Bonus: BRAHMS: Hungarian Dances Nos 4-5; Piano Sonata No. 2 in F Sharp Minor

Performers: Byron Janis, piano/ Julius Katchen, piano (Brahms)/ Orchestre National de la RTF (Prokofiev)/ Paul Paray, conductor Orchestre Philharmonique de ORTF (Rachmaninov)/ Louis de Froment, conductor
Studio: EMI Classics DVD DVB 3101999  
Video: 4:3 full screen, Black & White
Audio: PCM mono
Length: 78:05
Rating: ****

One of the most consistently reliable of keyboard artists, Byron Janis (b. 1928) has made a career of playing fiery interpretations of Russian music. I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Janis in Atlanta; even more so when, as our meeting wound down, in stepped a lovely woman, his wife Maria Cooper, daughter of my namesake, Gary Cooper. When I mentioned I had been named after her illustrious father, she exclaimed, “Good choice.”

The collaboration with Paul Paray in the Prokofiev Third Concerto (28 December 1963) merely confirms Janis’ natural sympathy for this piece, which he likewise performed in Russia under Kyrill Kondrashin and received plaudits from Prokofiev’s widow. The camera, courtesy Jacques Spohr, takes its sweet time ever showing us Maestro Paray; for half the opening Andante-Allegro we see an orchestra led by an anonymous baton. Janis is his little volcano self, reacting to every phrase and musical gesture with a grimace, a sigh, or by raising himself off the bench. The camera lingers on the opening clarinets, the woodwinds in general, then the strings. Occasionally, the camera pans up the tiers of the orchestra and takes in the whole ensemble, a nice effect in the last movement, especially as Paray rivets himself between the score and eye contact with Janis. One shot in the first movement caught my attention: we see Janis through the triangle formed by the keyboard and its raised lid, so that Janis forms the center of the All-Seeing Eye–or maybe I’ve been reading too much Dan Brown. The performance has it all, poetry and bravura virtuosity to spare.

The Rachmaninov videotape dates 2 January 1968 and features Louis de Froment on the podium, the man to whom I owe my first encounter with Albinoni’s famous Adagio. The opening sequence is shot at long range, full front, then it zooms to Janis’ face and flying fingers. Elegant and electrically lithe, Janis has the piano imitating all sorts of violin flurries, then we segue into the more amorous aspects of Paganini’s persona in which Janis raises his left eyebrow. The Dies Irae first appearance takes the cellos’ point of view, then to Janis’ double octaves. Piano and clarinets announce the liturgical sequence in full Technicolor, and then to some virtuosi crossed hands and gentle silence. The love scene has Janis executing smooth runs and then syncopations as the waltz variation evolves.

Now the mazurka or polka with high flute, then to the march. Busy trombones, and a rare shot of Froment in relief to the rapt audience. Janis’ cadenza follows, brittle and lilted, almost Viennese.  The nocturne is shot from on high, then a closeup on the violin solo and Janis superimposed in the frame. Eyes closed, Janis takes us to the 18th Variation, the camera double-exposing Janis and his fingers, side and front view simultaneously. Long-lined French elegance rules for the big theme. The last section, Rachmaninov’s answer to Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz, provides a field day for Janis‚ leggierissimo delivery, quicksilver leaps, and repeated notes. The march (to the scaffold) from high up, then back to close piano runs, the etude figures widen, and then percussive chords into the coda, set in that triangle of keyboard and piano lid.  Janis takes the last runs with the same propulsion pianists like to command to explode to the finale of the Tchaikovsky Concerto. At the conclusion where all are clapping, one lady just sits, her hand on her heart.

The bonus items are no less fascinating: a febrile Julius Katchen (1926-1969) in Paris (where he died) taped on two different days in 1966, the Hungarian Dances on  26 June  and the Sonata on 4 October. The F-sharp Minor Sonata Katchen plays furioso, conveying its Tristaneque, heaven-storming passion. Katchen had made a reputation in Brahms, even to the point of applying a more antiquated style of rhythmic and dynamic adjustments. The camera spends much time on Katchen’s face, then it cuts to front and right side to capture his muscular technique, a thicker, back-oriented, low wrist style very different from the leopard Janis. The Andante con espessione suggests how Katchen might have played Schubert. The camera pans back along the interior of the piano’s mechanism then to Katchen’s hands. The Scherzo is all flying fingers. But for all of Katchen’s conviction, I still find the last movement anticlimactic, an enigma which makes me call it a strange piece. The two Hungarian Dances are idiomatic enough, although they are mistitled on the credits. The F Minor drips with goulash and sweet fire. Its middle section is a little cembalom ensemble in itself.

–Gary Lemco

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