Christopher Keene, Vol. XV;  Byron Janis;  Jessye Norman  (St Laurent Studio YSL T-1150)
Item# C1984
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Christopher Keene, Vol. XV;  Byron Janis;  Jessye Norman  (St Laurent Studio YSL T-1150)
C1984. CHRISTOPHER KEENE Cond. Syracuse S.O.: L'Oiseau de feu – Suite (Stravinsky), Live Performance, 9 &10 Jan., 1980; w. BYRON JANIS: Piano Concerto #1 in f-sharp (Rachmaninoff), Live Performance, 27 & 29 March, 1980; w. JESSYE NORMAN: Capriccio - Final Scene (Strauss), Live Performance, 3 & 4 Oct., 1975 (all Mulroy Civic Center, Syracuse, NY). (Canada) St Laurent Studio YSL T-1150. Transfers by Yves St Laurent.


“This is Vol. 15 in St. Laurent Studio’s historic Christopher Keene Edition. Anyone who heard the first volume might have been motivated by curiosity, because Keene’s reputation was mixed, and although he rose to become music director of the New York City Opera, Keene’s tragic early death from AIDS in 1995, at 48, left behind barely any orchestral recordings. Yet having heard the entire St. Laurent series, I can confidently say that orchestral conducting was Keene’s strong suit, and the decade he spent as music director of the Syracuse Symphony represents an outstanding legacy. It has been an unalloyed pleasure to explore it.

Byron Janis began suffering from severe arthritis in both hands beginning in 1975, and although I don’t know when he played his last concert, considerable physical pain must have been involved in this 1980 performance of Rachmaninoff’s grueling Piano Concerto #1 (Janis didn’t speak publicly about his condition until 1985). He had made the Rachmaninoff First a signature work thanks to two classic recordings, with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony on RCA and with Kirill Kondrashin and the Moscow Philharmonic on Mercury. In 1980 he was still at the apex of American piano virtuosos who took Horowitz as their model.

I feel inclined to like this Syracuse performance even more than the two commercial recordings. The concerto is almost relentlessly virtuosic, and unlike the Rachmaninoff Second and Third Concertos, the melodic material isn’t very memorable. The piece requires a charismatic soloist of stupendous bravura technique to really shine. It gets those things in all three Janis accounts, but here the urgency is toned down a shade, and there’s no hint of hectoring. The engineering is actually better than for the Moscow performance, displaying an ideal balance between piano and orchestra. Moreover, the piano is a beautiful-sounding instrument. Keene’s conducting is warm and sympathetic, with more rounded contours than from Kondrashin. I won’t claim to hear anything close to major differences, yet it is remarkable that a studio-quality performance could come from Syracuse - the general music public had no idea of how superb the music-making could be from there.

The three published suites that Stravinsky extracted from THE FIREBIRD ballet in 1911 (five movements), 1919 (five movements), and 1945 (10 movements) cover a range of possibilities and orchestrations. Although listed as seven tracks, Keene conducts six numbers: Introduction, The Firebird’s Dance, Round Dance of the Princesses, Infernal Dance, Berceuse, and Finale. This is the same music as in the 1919 Suite, and it is gorgeously performed. Keene brings out the softest pastel coloration in the Introduction and Firebird’s Dance; the solo oboe is lovely in the Princesses’ Round Dance; and the mood is one of romantic enchantment, broken only by Kashchei’s Infernal Dance, the only movement where Keene might have found more visceral impact at the beginning. That’s a small complaint about an otherwise vibrant reading, full of memorable moments. The ensemble playing is impressive for a live performance, too.

Through an online search I don’t find that Jessye Norman ever recorded the Final Scene from Strauss’ last opera, CAPRICCIO, or any report that she sang it onstage, which makes this lovely account from 1975, the first year of Keene’s directorship in Syracuse, a significant document. Norman was 30, in her best early voice and absent the aloof attitude her singing later acquired. The solo horn melody in the scene’s long introduction is beautifully phrased, and the full splendor of Strauss’ ravishing string sound comes through vividly.

Undoubtedly the prime attraction is Norman, and for 22 minutes we hear a great singer in the making. The extraordinary voice comes through very well, even if Norman could have been miked a little more forward. This hardly matters, though - Norman exudes presence, and her delivery is dramatic as well as vocally thrilling. For anyone who loves her singing, this is a ‘must-listen’. It would be hard to say that the entire disc isn’t a ‘must-listen’, even given the overlap with Janis’ commercial recordings. Producer Yves St-Laurent delivers beautifully remastered sound from excellent sources, and the compilation of diverse works holds great appeal.”

- Huntley Dent, FANFARE

"Byron Janis became one of the most brilliant of his generation of American pianists before his career was cut short by illness. At the age of 7 he was taken to New York, becoming a pupil of Adele Marcus, then of Joseph and Rosina Lhévinne. In 1943 he made his professional debut playing Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto #2 with the NBC Symphony Orchestra in New York, with Frank Black conducting. In 1944 he repeated the same concerto in Pittsburgh with 13-year-old Lorin Maazel conducting the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Vladimir Horowitz was in the audience, and subsequently invited Janis to study with him. Then Janis embarked on a successful career as a concert pianist, including a 1948 tour to South America, and a 1952 tour of Europe.

In 1960 Janis was chosen as the first American artist to be sent to the Soviet Union, opening a newly formed Cultural Exchange between the USSR and the United States. The result was a brilliant Mercury Living Presence LP that is an all-time classic, pairing the Rachmaninov First and Prokofiev Third concerti. Aided by exemplary sound recording, the Prokofiev in particular is still regarded by many connoisseurs as the work's finest recorded interpretation. In 1995 the CD version won the Cannes Award for Best Reissue. He interrupted his career in the late '60s at the onset of an illness, and temporarily resumed it in 1972. Soon however, his concert appearances became more rare.

Meanwhile, in 1967 he had discovered the manuscripts of two previously unknown Chopin waltzes in Paris, and in 1973, two variations of them, also in Chopin's hand, at the Yale Library. This led to a 1978 French television documentary, FREDERIC CHOPIN: A VOYAGE WITH BYRON JANIS, in which he detailed the difficulties in determining the authentic versions of Chopin's music.

In 1985 he was invited to perform at the White House. On that occasion he publicly disclosed the nature of the illness that had hampered him for nearly 20 years: psoriatic arthritis affecting his wrists and hands. The ailment had not prevented him from continuing to play piano well, but it often made it impossible to play to his former high standard.

In the meantime, he devoted much of his energy to teaching, composing, and humanitarian concerns. He became Ambassador of the Arts for the Arthritis Foundation, often playing in fund-raising concerts. He is Chairman of the Global Forum Arts and Culture Committee. He is on the faculty of Manhattan School of Music, and works on the Board and Music Advisory Committee for Pro Musicus, an international organization devoted to helping young artists."

- Joseph Stevenson,

“Jessye Norman, the majestic American soprano who brought a sumptuous, shimmering voice to a broad range of roles at the Metropolitan Opera and houses around the world, who also found acclaim as a recitalist and on the concert stage, was one of the most decorated of American singers. She won five Grammy Awards, four for her recordings and one for lifetime achievement. She received the prestigious Kennedy Center Honor in 1997 and the National Medal of Arts in 2009.

In a career that began in the late-1960s, Ms. Norman sang the title role in Verdi’s AIDA, Wagner’s heroines, characters in Janacek, Bartok and Strauss operas, and Cassandre in LES TROYENS by Berlioz, in which she made her Met debut in 1983. She went on to sing more than 80 performances at the Met. Its general manager, Peter Gelb, on Monday called her ‘one of the greatest artists to ever sing on our stage’.

A keen interpreter as well as a magnificent singer, Ms. Norman had a distinctly opulent tone that sounded effortless, never pushed. It was especially suited to Wagner and Strauss. In a review of a 1992 recital, Edward Rothstein of THE NEW YORK TIMES likened her voice to a ‘grand mansion of sound’. ‘It defines an extraordinary space’, he wrote. ‘It has enormous dimensions, reaching backward and upward. It opens onto unexpected vistas. It contains sunlit rooms, narrow passageways, cavernous halls. Ms. Norman is the regal mistress of this domain, with a physical presence suited to her vocal expanse’.

As an African-American, she credited other great black singers with paving the way for her, naming Marian Anderson, Dorothy Maynor and Leontyne Price, among others, in a 1983 interview with THE TIMES. ‘Look, it’s unrealistic to pretend that racial prejudice doesn’t exist. It does! It’s one thing to have a set of laws, and quite another to change the hearts and minds of men. That takes longer. I do not consider my blackness a problem. I think it looks rather nice’. In her memoir, StanD UP STRAIGHT AND SING! (2014), she recounted meeting instances of racism. ‘Racial barriers in our world are not gone, so why can we imagine that racial barriers in classical music and the opera world are gone?’ she told THE TIMES in 2014.

Ms. Norman was born into a musical family on Sept. 15, 1945, in Augusta, Ga., growing up there in a segregated but close-knit world. Her mother, Janie King Norman, was an amateur pianist; her father, Silas Norman Sr., was an insurance broker. Jessye especially enjoyed visiting her maternal grandparents, fascinated by one particular piece of furniture. ‘My grandparents were the only people I ever knew who had one - a grand pedal organ, or more accurately, a harmonium - right there in their house’, she wrote in her memoir. ‘It lived over in the corner of the front room, and I remember thinking that it was the most exotic thing I had ever encountered in my entire life. As far as I can recall, we were never stopped from playing it, nor admonished for disturbing the adults’.

She began listening to opera on the radio as a child. ‘I remember thinking that opera stories were not very different from other stories: a boy meets a girl, they fall in love, they cannot be together for some reason, and most of the time it does not end happily ever after’, she wrote. ‘For me, opera stories were grown-up versions of stories that were familiar to me already’.

Appearances at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, the Royal Opera House in London, and other major opera houses followed, and she quickly became one of the busiest opera divas on the scene, a fixture of galas and benefits. An accomplished recitalist, she made records of vocal works by Mahler, Debussy and Strauss. She also ranged backward in time to the Baroque, displaying a remarkable command of a broad range of styles. She was famous for saying ‘pigeonholes are for pigeons’.

It was not until 1983 that she made a belated Met debut, opening the company’s centennial season singing the role of Cassandre in a starry revival of Berlioz’s LES TROYENS. By all accounts she stole the show, winning over ‘Monday night’s audience and Tuesday morning’s critics’, as THE TIMES reported in its account of her ‘triumph’. She rose early the next day to appear on NBC’s ‘Today’ show. ‘The only person in my family who couldn’t come on Monday was my mother, who is ill and at home in Georgia’, she said at the time. ‘I wanted to give her a look at me’.

Her imposing stage presence and large, voluptuous voice made her ideal for certain parts. When she sang the title character of Richard Strauss’ ARIADNE AUF NAXOS, one of her defining roles, John Rockwell described her in THE TIMES as ‘one of our most musicianly singers’ and added: ‘She has just the right voice for this role: a smoothly knit-together soprano that reaches up from plummy contralto notes to a powerful fullness on top’.

In a sign of her international stature, Ms. Norman was tapped to sing ‘La Marseillaise’ in Paris on the 200th anniversary of Bastille Day - which she did, in dramatic fashion, at the obelisk on the Place de la Concorde before an array of world leaders, wearing a grand tricolor gown designed by Azzedine Alaïa. She also sang at the second inaugurations of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.

She became a major recording artist at the dawn of the compact disc era, leaving a rich catalog of opera, lieder, spirituals and recitals. One of her most acclaimed recordings was a classic account of Strauss’ ‘Four Last Songs’, backed by Kurt Masur and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. ‘Her generous heart, dignified manner and noble voice seem ideally suited to Strauss’ valedictory utterances’, GRAMOPHONE wrote in its review.

In person she cut an imposing figure, dressing dramatically and speaking with a diva’s perfect diction. When she entered a room, heads turned. And even after she left the opera stage she remained a restless, probing artist. She was socially engaged. In 2003, Ms. Norman and the Rachel Longstreet Foundation created the Jessye Norman School of the Arts, a free after-school arts program in her native Augusta for underserved students. That city will rename a street Jessye Norman Boulevard in October; she had planned to attend the ceremony.

Among her final projects was ‘Sissieretta Jones: Call Her By Her Name!’, a tribute to Jones, who in 1893 became the first African-American woman to headline a concert on the main stage of Carnegie Hall - and who had bristled at her stage name, ‘the Black Patti’, which compared her to the white diva Adelina Patti. ‘Thirty years out of slavery for African-Americans in this country, here she was on the stage of Carnegie Hall’, Ms. Norman said in an interview last year.

In her memoir, Ms. Norman recalled one of her own earliest stabs at singing opera in front of an audience. She was in junior high school when, at a teacher’s urging, she performed the aria ‘My Heart at Thy Sweet Voice’ from Saint-Saëns’ SAMSON ET DALILA. She had been singing it in English at church functions and supermarket openings, but for the school performance her teacher had her learn it in its original French. ‘I do think that if you can stand up and sing in French in front of an assembly full of middle-schoolers’, Ms. Norman wrote, ‘then you can do just about anything’.”

- Daniel J. Wakin & Michael Cooper, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 30 Sept., 2019