New Take on Chopin, Times Three

Herbert Glass is a regular contributor to Calendar

Throughout the 1960s, American pianist Byron Janis wowed audiences worldwide with his percussive, flamboyant style, a style incompatible with the dreaminess of Chopin, which Janis realized as well as anyone.

Then, during the 1970s, with both of his hands increasingly ravaged by arthritis, Janis began to withdraw from the concert stage. His career--like that of his contemporaries Leon Fleisher and Gary Graffman, also suffering from severe hand problems--seemed to have ended a decade ago.

In fact, however, Janis is back. Not in the concert hall (where Fleisher and Graffman are increasingly visible) but in the studio, with the very sort of Chopin (EMI 56196) he would have avoided during his '60s heyday.

How this recording was accomplished in view of what had been reported about the condition of the pianist's hands can only be guessed at. What is clear from this profoundly introspective collection of mazurkas, nocturnes and waltzes is that the hothead of the '60s has become the thinker of the '90s. Furthermore, playing of such firmness of line and structural integrity as heard here can't be accomplished note by note, splice upon splice.

Janis' way with the most pensive of the nocturnes, the two Opus 27 marvels, encapsulates the kind of playing offered throughout: chiseled but never hard-edged, rhythmically free but employing less rubato than some more celebrated Chopinists might give us.

Deep, dark Chopin, then, and if we're very lucky, the beginning of the rest of Byron Janis' life.


Where Janis chisels, Maria Joa~o Pires sculpts the lines of Chopin's nocturnes, the complete set of 21 (Deutsche Grammophon 447 096, two CDs), with a degree of subtlety, color and emotional breadth that produces interpretations capable of holding their own with those of such legendary predecessors as Alfred Cortot and Artur Rubinstein.

The Portuguese pianist seems to find the right tempo and weight, the right angle of refraction, so to speak, and dynamic scale for each of these inspired miniatures. In her playing, the vocal roots of Chopin's piano style are perhaps more discernible than in the work of any other living pianist.

Pires' approach to the E-major Nocturne is undulant, more soft-edged than Janis'. Yet she is at least his equal in projecting its menacing subtext. The otherworldly harmonies of Opus 37 resonate gloriously in Pires' reading. And so it goes throughout her seductive traversal of the entire set.


The late Jakob Gimpel (1906-1989) may have been underappreciated during the many years he lived in Los Angeles, but not by the audience that filled Ambassador Auditorium on May 11, 1978, to hear him play a recital of works by his Polish compatriot Chopin. Now, through the efforts of the pianist's son, Peter Gimpel, the recital, encores and all, appears on recordings for the first time (Cambria 1070, two CDs).

This is for the most part heroic, big-hearted Chopin of a sort seldom encountered nowadays. The great G-minor Ballade as delivered by Gimpel is drama of the most exalted and communicative sort, full of fire, song and tension, while the pair of etudes heard on the second half of the program are purest daredevil virtuosity. Yet the wistful Barcarolle is in his hands Chopin as the poet of the piano, the quintessential Romantic.

There's much more here, including as thunderous (if not as neat) a B-flat minor sonata as you are likely to encounter in a lifetime of concert-going and a trio of mazurkas to satisfy the cravings of the most ardent Polish nationalist.

The audience goes audibly wild on more than one occasion, and indeed this is playing that cannily alternates the incendiary and the sensitive.

In sum, a nourishing, handsomely recorded production that honors the memory of a major musician who lived in our midst. It also raises the enticing vision of what else, particularly in the way of piano recitals, might reside in the Ambassador vaults.

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