The Polish-Russian family name of Yankilevitch was shortened to Yanks when the family emigrated to America and by the time Byron was fifteen, it had been changed again, first to Jannes and then to Janis. The parents were not musical, but by the age of five young Byron’s talent was already in evidence. He began lessons with Abraham Litow who had studied at the Moscow Conservatory, and as the child’s progress was so rapid, his parents took him to New York to play for Josef and Rosina Lhévinne. The father stayed in Pittsburgh at the family store, whilst Byron, his mother and sister moved to New York. Janis began studying with the Lhévinnes at the age of eight, but after one year their concert schedule prevented regular tuition. Eight months were spent under the tuition of Dorothea Anderson La Follette, after which the Lhévinnes decided that Janis should study with Adele Marcus. For the following six years Janis received two lessons per week from Marcus.
Janis made his recital debut at the age of nine in Pittsburgh and the following year, through the help of Samuel Chotzinoff, played on radio’s Magic Key Hour. Chotzinoff was music critic of the New York Post, music consultant for NBC Radio, and founder of the Chatham Square Music School where Marcus was a teacher. Janis made his orchestral debut with the NBC Symphony Orchestra playing Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor Op. 18 when he was fifteen. When he returned to Pittsburgh to give his orchestral debut it was with the same work and a fourteen-year-old Lorin Maazel as conductor. Vladimir Horowitz was in the audience and invited Janis to play for him in New York. At the age of seventeen Janis became Horowitz’s first pupil, taking lessons every week for three years. The fee for these lessons, and the cost of his studies with Adele Marcus, was paid for by philanthropist William Rosenwald. Horowitz would not allow Janis to study with any other pianist, nor copy his own style. In order to have regular lessons, Janis would go on tour with Horowitz and his wife. During his time with Horowitz, Janis gave about fifty concerts including a successful tour of Brazil. After this, he decided to make his Carnegie Hall debut.
When Janis was twenty Horowitz stopped giving him lessons and he began the life of the touring virtuoso, playing with the greatest orchestras and conductors of the time including the Concertgebouw with Eduard van Beinum and the London Symphony Orchestra with Antal Dorati. At his London debut he played Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor Op. 18 with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Norman del Mar. When he returned to London and played the same concerto in 1961 a critic wrote that it was ‘…played with all the ardour, fire, and sympathy it calls for and so rarely gets by Mr Byron Janis, an enormously gifted pianist from America’. However, in November of the same year in a performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor Op. 37 Janis was described as ‘…the urgently forward-driving but often hard-hitting soloist’. In the same month he played Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor Op. 23 with Jascha Horenstein and the London Symphony Orchestra. Janis was described as an ‘exceedingly tense and vivid’ pianist. ‘At times his inability to give less than his all led him to adopt tempi too fast even for his
In 1961 Janis was honoured in being selected by both the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra to appear as soloist in both of Liszt’s piano concertos during the 150th celebrations of the composer’s birth. Janis was also the first American to tour Russia on a cultural exchange programme, the success of which led to a further invitation two years later where, in one programme, he played Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 54, Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in F sharp minor Op. 1 and Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major Op. 26 with Kyrill Kondrashin conducting the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra. The success of this performance led to the American recording company Mercury sending equipment and engineers to Moscow to record the Rachmaninov and Prokofiev concertos. The following year the recording of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 Op. 26 won a Grand Prix du Disque. The late 1960s saw the height of Janis’s career when he was performing almost one hundred concerts per year.
In reviews from the early 1960s critics often commented on Janis’s tension during performances. ‘A good deal has been said about the art of relaxation when playing the piano. Mr Janis played as though he had never heard of the word.’ Descriptions such as ‘intense nervous force’ and ‘hard-driven’ appear often, and by 1964 in a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 ‘…he eschewed not only tradition but also many of the composer’s actual directions… at the opening of the first movement’s Allegro con spirito, for example, where each bar was shaped with forceful accents, or in the slow movement’s Prestissimo section, where a fierce urgency replaced the proper lightness.’ It sounded as though Janis was becoming a Horowitz clone and he admits that when he began studying with Horowitz he ‘…soon became very disturbed’, as Adele Marcus’s teaching and that of Horowitz were completely at odds with each other. From the age of seventeen Janis was always hearing Horowitz play, especially at his home, and the impressionable young man absorbed every nuance of Horowitz’s style. ‘I knew exactly how he phrased, how he felt about a piece and it all got into my ear. At that time I did not realise what was happening. I was becoming a copy of Horowitz.’
In 1973 Janis began to suffer from arthritis in his hands. However, he continued to practise five or six hours a day and continued his concert schedule. In 1975 he was still playing Chopin études in concert without the audience knowing his suffering. However by 1984, when all the remedies he had tried had failed, he was now taking large doses of drugs. This state of affairs, combined with the thought of being unable to play the piano, understandably led to mental depression. ‘It was a life-and-death struggle for me every day for years.’ Not until 1985 did he first speak publicly about his condition, and quickly became Ambassador for the Arts for the Arthritis Foundation.
Janis has taught since 1962, and from 1987 has given classes at the Manhattan School of Music. In the late 1960s and early 1970s he discovered four Chopin manuscripts in France and America, and made a television film about Chopin’s life which was co-produced by French television. Janis is also a composer, having written a score for a television special on screen actor Gary Cooper, and a musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.
A pianist following the Grand Tradition, Janis is one of a group of American pianists born in the 1920s, including Gary Graffman, William Kapell and Van Cliburn, who were greatly influenced by Vladimir Horowitz. He specialised in the big Romantic concertos by Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Liszt and Tchaikovsky.
Some of Janis’s earliest recordings have recently been reissued in the Philips Great Pianists Series. Tracks from his first recital disc for RCA/Victor from 1952 and even earlier have been issued, together with some Liszt pieces recorded in 1957 that were never issued at the time. His most impressive recordings were made for RCA in the late 1950s. With Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Janis recorded Liszt’s Totentanz, the Burleske by Richard Strauss and Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in F sharp minor Op. 1. The concerto, recorded in March 1957, is particularly fine with Reiner matching Janis all the way for excitement and virtuosity. Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 Op. 30 was recorded with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Charles Munch in the same year.
Janis’s main series of recordings was made for Mercury in the early 1960s. This consists mainly of concertos, where Janis recorded again those he had recorded for RCA. Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major Op. 26 and Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in F sharp minor Op. 1 were recorded in Moscow with the Moscow Philharmonic and Kyrill Kondrashin, and on his return visit in 1962 both Liszt’s concertos were recorded with the same forces. With Antal Dorati and the London Symphony Orchestra he again recorded Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor Op. 30, whilst with the same conductor and the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra he recorded Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor Op. 18. Also with the London Symphony Orchestra Janis recorded Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor Op. 23 with Herbert Menges conducting, and Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 54 with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra conducted by Stanisław Skrowaczewski. The only major solo work recorded by Mercury, but not issued until 1994, was of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.
In 1996 Janis recorded a Chopin recital for EMI/Angel of waltzes, nocturnes and mazurkas and in 1998 recorded a disc of Chopin and Liszt including Liszt’s arrangement of Wagner’s Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).