Byron's Janis is sitting at a piano in Valldemosa, Majorca. It is the piano Frederic Chopin used while he was staying there with George Sand and her children (her other children, one might almost say), and it sounds like it has not been tuned since he left the island in 1839. Janis runs through part of a Prelude. "It doesn't sound too good . . ." he says, quite correctly, during tonight's hour-long TV special "Frederic Chopin: A Voyage with Bryon Janis." "But still, this is the piano on which he wrote it." The listener gains a new appreciation of Chopin's genius and the music is remarkable from any viewpoint. But coming from such an instrument, it seems downright miraculous.
In a sense, the old piano's jarring tones evoke the composer's pain-wracked body, fatally stricken with tuberculosis, coughing blood, suffering delirium and hallucinations, and yet producing melodies and harmonies such as the world had never before dreamed. Most of the pianos Janis uses in the show (on Channel 26 at 9) are better than that and he plays well on all of them.
The quality of performance is incidental in this program, which is designed to set Chopin's work in the context of his life, and to explore in words and pictures the soul that Choplin himself explored so exquisitely in his music. It does not say everything that needs to be said, but it will give the casual listener a good perspective and the more experienced devotee some fascinating new perspectives -- including a variant version of one of the Valses Brillantes which Janis plays from a manuscript in Choplin's handwriting.
The journey, which also includes a stop at George Sand's home in France, begins at Chopin's birthplace in Zelazowa Wola, near Warsaw, where Janis plays on the composer's piano while a crowd listens in the sunny park outside. The Polish segment includes a striking sequence on the nation's struggle for freedom and its own identity.
Sometimes biographer Janis yields to pianist Janis; for example, while he demonstrates one of the exercises Chopin gave his students -- mostly untalented French aristocrats, who paid him the equivalent of $20 an hour.And sometimes the pianist and biographer join forces; while his voice discusses Majorca and the Sand affair, Janis' hands are playing of the Opus 35 Sonata.