Legendary Pianist Overcomes Arthritis: Crippled Hands Can't Stop Janis' CD

Article excerpt

NEW YORK - He is still every inch the maestro, the eagle profile bent over his Steinway, the intense eyes boring into a phrase, the fingers that despite all odds still evoke the music that has raised him among the world's great artists.

Part of the Byron Janis story has been told before: child prodigy; first student of the great Vladimir Horowitz; first American invited to play in Moscow at the height of the Cold War; the 15-year-old who played with the great Toscanini; winner of countless international awards; finder of two lost Chopin manuscripts; husband of the glamorous Maria Cooper, Gary's daughter.

But there's more. As this intense and brilliant concert pianist played the international circuit, a crippling arthritis took its toll, driving him from his art by the recurring need for surgery and cortisone injections in his fingers. At one point, the crushing depression kept him a recluse at home for more than a year.

In 1985 he revealed his torment at a White House dinner held by President and Mrs. Reagan, who announced that Mr. Janis would be a national spokesman for the Arthritis Foundation. He has toured the country, playing benefit concerts, talking about how he found the will to live - and to play works of the masters - in spite of the cruel degeneration of his fingers.

Held at the edge of the profession - he does not appear at Carnegie Hall anymore, nor can he manage the big concertos - Mr. Janis has, after a quarter-century of struggle, come smashing back at the age of 68 with his first recording in 34 years: Chopin, a lifelong passion. By all accounts, expert and amateur, he has delivered a stirring performance to crown an extraordinary body of work since he made his debut in 1944 with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

The idea for a recording took root in the spring of 1995 when Max Wilcox, a recording producer, heard Mr. Janis perform a benefit concert at Lincoln Center. Would he consider making a recording? "I thought, `Well, I'll give it a shot,' " the pianist said.

Six months later, he recorded "Byron Janis Plays Chopin" at the American Institute of Arts and Letters in Manhattan before an audience of 80 invited guests, including Andrew Bory, the great-grandson of Chopin's sister, Louise. Mr. Janis did not want to edit "bar by bar," but to play through to the end before a live audience.

"If ever there was a reminder that the piano isn't really played with the fingers, here it is," wrote a New York critic, summing up the heart of the Janis story.

His story is his hands, pictured in close-up on the back cover of the EMI Classics CD released last fall. The distal joints, or tips, are fused in nine of his fingers. In the little finger of the right hand, both joints do not bend, and the left little finger has been numb since an accident at age 10. His left thumb is shorter than the right as a result of sloppy surgery, and his wrists and neck have lost their range of motion. …