Notes and Editorial Reviews
Shura Cherkassky, born in 1909 in the Crimean port of Odessa, was noted among 20th century pianists for his wayward temperament. Even in old age, he still showed himself in full possession of seemingly effortless power. His extensive repertoire ranged the styles and the centuries. He loved the concert life, and he was a lifelong traveller. From 1928 to the start of the Second World War he was at home in the musical capitals of countries around the world; after the war was over, he developed a predilection for Europe. He was often dubbed a musician of the piano or of the keys, on account of the sounds he conjured up in his virtuosic and spontaneous playing of Liszt and Chopin or other Romantic composers. “Fidelity to the original” never was
his sole preoccupation. In this respect he resembled his teacher, the great Josef C. Hofmann, at whose Curtis Institute in Philadelphia he studied once his family had found a new home in the USA in 1923. Before that he had been taught by his mother, who had studied the piano at the St Petersburg Conservatory and gained her diploma there. At the age of nine, Shura Cherkassky gave his first public concert. His childlike delight in playing certainly stayed with him all his life, audible today in the recordings he has left us.
Although Shura Cherkassky’s unabashedly subjective and capricious style was out of sync with the mid-20th century’s literalist zeitgeist, his way of playing gained newfound acceptance and international acclaim by the mid-1970s, together with similarly inclined pianists benefiting from the “Romantic Revival”, like Jorge Bolet and Earl Wild. If anything, interest in Cherkassky seems to have increased since his death in December 1995, with numerous archival broadcast and concert releases and reissues of long-ignored studio recordings from Cherkassky’s first European career-surge between the early 1950s and early 1960s. Profil’s 10-disc collection draws upon material that most recently appeared on the Testament, Medici Classics, Orfeo, Ermitage, Deutsche Grammophon, and Biddulph labels, much of which will be familiar to piano mavens, if not consistently easy to source.
You get most of Cherkassky’s EMI Liszt output, where colorfully fanciful accounts of the Concerto No. 1 and Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13 stand out, not to mention the glittering and exceptionally well-played Hungarian Fantasy courtesy of DG, with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic. The early 1950s DG Tchaikovsky First and Second concertos hold little interest aside from Cherkassky’s full-bodied command of the solo parts. If you can accept unusual phrase groupings and frequently reversed dynamics, large-scale Chopin selections like the Fourth Ballade, the Fourth Scherzo, and the F-sharp minor Polonaise will certainly titillate your ears, and maybe even grow on you. Cherkassky’s measured tread and lapidary detailing in the Grande Polonaise is cut from the same cloth as his mentor Josef Hofmann, albeit without that controversial master’s rhythmic élan.
I’ve never been convinced by Cherkassky’s rubatos and myriad tempo modifications in either Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition or Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrouchka, while such expressive notions thoroughly create character in the Schumann Sonata No. 1, Schumann Fantasy in C major, and an early 1950s Brahms Paganini Variations transmission. Indeed, the latter operates on a much higher technical and musical level than Cherkassky was able to muster in his 1984 Nimbus recording.
In the live 1961 Salzburg Mozart C major Sonata K. 330 Cherkassky prioritizes color over line and mood over structure, yet oozes charm every step of the way. Revisiting the spacious and thoughtfully voiced live 1963 Berg sonata was almost as pleasant a surprise as the most aristocratic and polished reading of Barber’s Excursions I’ve heard in ages.
Unfortunately, swimmy sonic ambience undermines much of the Prokofiev Second concerto’s brilliant scoring, and you really need a more acerbic, harder-hitting piano soloist than Cherkassky, to be honest. One can say the same about the Shostakovich First concerto. Originally issued on LP via World Record Club, the Schumann and Grieg concerto coupling with Adrian Boult and the London Philharmonic apparently turns up here for the first time on CD. Cherkassky indulges himself to the point of shapelessness, only adding to the performances’ generally lackluster impression. On the other hand, the Saint-Saëns/Godowsky The Swan and Chasins’ Rush Hour in Hong Kong capture Cherkassky at his disarming best.
The final disc contains some but not all of the adolescent Cherkassky’s remarkable 1920s solo sides for Victor in abominable and mercifully uncredited transfers, plus the early-1930s Rachmaninov cello sonata with Marcel Hubert. Basically Cherkassky’s inflected phrasing markedly contrasts to cellist Hubert’s relatively straighter reserve; chamber music clearly was not Cherkassky’s bailiwick. Essentially this grab bag of a collection adds up to about 75 percent top-drawer Cherkassky, but at least the price is right.
– ClassicsToday (Jed Distler) Read less
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