The Piano Files

Marlya Jonas

A frequently overlooked Polish pianist produced some of the most exquisite records ever made.
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Marlya Jonas

The fact that many artists are remembered after their deaths due to their recorded legacy is a topic regularly covered in these Piano Files posts. However, the artistic value of a pianist’s playing and the fact that they made records does not guarantee that their fame will be on par with that of some colleagues: certain marvellous musicians have remained completely overlooked, although others not known by the wider public have had somewhat of a cult status amongst pianophiles and record collectors.

One who fits into the latter category is the Polish pianist Maryla Jonas. She was not a major competition winner: she wasn’t even a finalist the 1927 Chopin Competition and she placed only 13th in 1932, though she was an unranked finalist at the 1933 Vienna Competition, the year that Dinu Lipatti famously tied for second (others alongside Jonas were György Sándor and Gina Bachauer). If major prizes eluded her, she would later gain recognition for powerful music-making that was fuelled — by her own admission — in a less-than-ideal way: the great suffering she endured in her life.

Jonas narrowly escaped being rounded up for the concentration camps when a German soldier recognized her and let her go. To escape Warsaw and not be detected while traveling to Berlin, where she had contacts who could help protect her, Jonas had to walk the whole way, a journey that compromised her health for the rest of her short life. Once her friends managed to get her safely to Brazil (with forged papers claiming she was the wife of a diplomat), Jonas learned that her husband, parents, and a brother had been killed in the camps.

She gave up performing due to her anguish, and legend has it that her famous compatriot Arthur Rubinstein — a great admirer of her playing — secretly lured her back to the piano by inviting her to his sound check prior to a recital in Rio. After practicing a bit, he asked her to play the instrument to help him check the acoustics of the hall. The story goes that she got so engaged in playing that she couldn’t stop, and as an appreciative audience made their way inside to be seated for Rubinstein’s concert, Jonas stopped and received rapturous applause. Bookings followed and her career was re-launched.

Jonas would move to the US and remarry, enjoying some success as a performer but retiring after just a few years as she could not withstand the pressures of concert life. Her health permanently compromised due to her wartime journey, she died in 1959 at the age of 48. However, at the height of her career she made a few hours of recordings for the US Columbia label, some on the old 78rpm discs and later a couple of LPs. Most of these were never reissued after her death and the original records have continued to fetch massive fees.

And no wonder: the playing in the grooves of these old discs is some of the most sumptuous, moving, inspired, and refined playing one could ever hope to hear. Most of the works are small-scale, the bulk of it Chopin, but the level of refinement and beauty in her performances have justly earned her a longstanding reputation amongst connoisseurs. Her playing is the kind that makes one realize the ‘simple’ works, as some people call them — pieces that do not seem to require extreme agility to play all the notes — are actually very difficult to play as well as Jonas does here.

Take the Chopin Mazurka in F major Op. 68 No. 3 that opened up the fabled 1955 record collecting some of her Mazurka performances. The flawless balance of all the notes in each chord, the way each note sings while each line rises and falls like a natural human breath where you don’t hear the actual inhalation or exhalation, just clearly communicated phrasing that is so impeccably clean and direct — this is actually incredibly difficult to accomplish. One can hear in the mournful mood and depth of expression the years of suffering that Jonas herself had experienced.

Jonas recorded only two Mendelssohn works, and both glisten like a jewel. This Song Without Words has a soaring melodic line, shaped with tensile strength while being sensitively nuanced, and as always she plays with a gorgeous singing sound. Each phrase is utterly captivating for the incredible adjustments in timing and dynamics — if you try singing along, you’ll notice the mastery with which she nuances: it’s simply impossible to predict when she will slow down or speed up, get softer or louder, and yet it’s always so natural and exquisitely beautiful.

Another short recording that shows her impeccable mastery is a composition that has only recently been identified: the Caixinha de música [Music Box] composed for Jonas by the Romanian photographer-composer-pianist Nicolas Alagemovits while they were in Brazil. The playing is absolutely incredible, with a stunning array of tonal colours, magnificent dynamic control, crystalline clarity, and phenomenal timing. The effect she achieves towards the end of the work is thoroughly spellbinding, really bringing to mind the image of a music box.

How incredible that these once almost unobtainable recordings can now be heard complete at the click of a button, also available newly revitalized on CD in a truly precious box set with a lavish booklet — one of the most important releases of the past decades and a timeless treasure. What an age we live in, to be able to so easily access such sublime artistry!

To close, the entire 1955 Columbia Entré LP of Jonas playing Chopin Mazurkas (from recordings dating to the 1940s), a prized collectors’ item still fetching high prices at auctions. How seamlessly she shifts her style according to the required mood of the work, from melancholic to joyful, pensive to playful, and everything in between. Exquisite pianism from a true master!

Website: thepianofiles.com

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