A previous reviewer calls this a steely interpretation, which is exactly what it isn't. As a Horowitz pupil, Janis was advertised as a machine-like pianist, yet here he seems to eschew brilliance quite a lot of the time, and aided by Kondrashin's considered tempos, we hear a more humane Prokofiev third. (Looking back historically, the real quasi-Horowitz in this work was William Kapell). But I do like a phrase used previously here: "living rhythm." There's an organic feeling to Janis's phrasing that makes them breathe, and if one of his rivals from the Sixties, Gray Graffman, produced a fire-and-ice interpretation under Szell that is hard to surpass, Janis succeeds on the grounds of humor and warmth. He is much less aggressive than Argerich, and there's little of Kissin's attempt to awe the crowd with technical bravura.
The accompaniment by Kondrashin is stylistically perfect, which counts for a lot, but the Moscow Phil. needs to be taken for what it is, a fairly flashy Soviet orchestra whose woodwinds and brass are not up to scratch by the best standards today. Mercury's sound holds up in its detail and faithfulness; I'm also glad that this CD isn't plagued by the harsh, thin treble that's made other digital transfers of classic Mercury recordings so disappointing. On LP the brightness in Living Presence recordings made the instruments seem to hang in mi-air, but that effect, so far as I can judge, is long gone. But the vividness of the 3-track half-inch master tapes is still gripping.
When the Gramophone reviewed the original release in 1962, it complained that the piano sound was too loud and "dreadfully hard." You might still say that the first is true, although in an era of multi-miking we've become used to solo instruments leaping out of the speakers, but the piano sound isn't hard as far as I can hear. In the Rachmaninov Janis is so clear and defined in his fingering, with Kondrashin lending support that is just as lucid, that the piece organizes itself better than in any other recording I know. Sobriety isn't usually a term of praise for a music reviewer, but it applies here -- no schmaltz or swooning allowed. There's also a pleasing absence of Horowitzian brittleness.
Since my version is a download, I don't have a date for the generous solo items that serve as filler. The musical restraint that the pianist displays in the Prokofiev Toccata belies its machine-gunfire reputation. He's just as sensitive in the Mendelssohn and Schumann selections, leading me to re-evaluate the Byron Janis I thought I knew. I was guilty of falling for a stereotype of steel fingers when there's a finer artist here. Highly recommended.