PIANO MASTERPIECES / LISZT: Hungarian Fantasia for Piano & Orchestra.1 Fantasy: Réminiscences de “Don Juan” of Mozart. Paraphrase, Vales de l’Opera “Faust” of Gounod. Piano Concerto No. 1 in Eb.2 Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13. Liebestraum No. 3. Grand Galop Chromatique. POULENC: Trois Pièces: Toccata. SAINT-SAËNS: The Swan. CHASINS: 3 Chinese Pieces. LIADOV: A Musical Snuffbox. TCHAIKOVSKY: Piano Concerti Nos. 13 & 2.4 CHOPIN: Polonaise in f# min. Ballade in f min. Scherzo in E. Nocturne in F, Op. 55/1. Andante Spianato & Grand Polonaise Brillante. Waltz No. 14 in e min. (2 vers.). MUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition. PROKOFIEV: Piano Concerto No. 2 in g min.5 SHOSTAKOVICH: Concerto No. 1 for Piano, Trumpet & String Orch.5 BARBER: Excursions. BERG: Piano Sonata. STRAVINSKY: 3 Movements from “Petrouchka.” Circus Polka. GRIEG: Piano Concerto.6 SCHUMANN: Piano Concerto.6 Fantasia in C. Piano Sonata No. 1. BRAHMS: Variations on a Theme by Paganini. MENDELSSOHN: Capriccio in e min.: Scherzo, Presto. Rondo Capriccioso in E. Hunting Song in A. Scherzo in e min. Prelude in e min. MOZART: Piano Sonata in C, K. 330. CHERKASSKY: Prélude Pathetique. RAMEAU: Tambourin (arr. Godowsky). BEETHOVEN: Eccosaise in Eb. RACHMANINOV: Cello Sonata in g min. / Shura Cherkassky, pno; Berlin Philharmonic Orch., cond. by 1Herbert von Karajan, 3Leopold Ludwig, 4Richard Krauss; Philharmonia Orch., cond. by 2Anatole Fistoulari, 5Herbert Menges; London Philharmonic Orch., cond. by 6Sir Adrian Boult / Profil (Hanssler Classic) PH18037
Shura Cherkassky was one of the greatest yet phlegmatic of Russian pianists, due not to a lack of technique but because he was a creature of whim. When the spirit moved him, he was brilliant and fascinating; when it did not, he was either musically wayward or, worse yet, detached. (I wrote an appreciation of Cherkassky early on in this blog in which I put some personal reminiscences of seeing him in person.) This massive set of recordings spans the years 1923-1963, from the time he was still a wunderkind working and studying in America with Josef Hofmann, through the long period of the 1930s and ‘40s when he was virtually ignored and under-recorded, to the 1950s and early ‘60s when Europe, and specifically England, suddenly rediscovered him. Yet for whatever reason, his career went into limbo yet again until he was rediscovered by both Americans and Brits in the late 1970s/early ‘80s, from which point his career took off again until his death in 1995.
The rather presumptuous title of this set is Piano Masterpieces, but I take issue with that. More than half of Franz Liszt’s compositional output is, in my view, absolute rubbish, and his bombastic operatic fantasies are high on my crapola list. Also far less than masterpiece status are Poulenc’s slight Toccata, Saint-Saëns’ The Swan, Liadov’s A Musical Snuffbox and Stravinsky’s Circus Polka, a piece he wrote for quick cash to celebrate some elephant named Jumbo that he later wished he had destroyed. But what the heck, we get a pretty fair range of material here.
I began my listening with CD 10 because these are his earliest recordings. The booklet info mistakenly lists the first track as “Hunting Song IN A MAJOR/Jagerlied” by Felix Mendelssohn, but it’s actually an early recording of the Chopin Waltz No. 14 in e minor. Apparently, the editors at Profil not only couldn’t tell Mendelssohn from Chopin, or a hunting song from a waltz, but couldn’t tell A major from e minor. It’s a surprisingly blistering performance, much more outré than his later Chopin performances, although he does drag out the middle theme in typical Cherkassky fashion. The remake isn’t nearly as exaggerated in this middle. These early records, oddly, were not issued on Victor’s Red Seal label but on their blue label, which like the purple label was reserved for “celebrity” pop stars like Harry Lauder, Eddie Cantor and Fanny Brice, as well as what they considered secondary classical stars such as soprano Lucy Isabelle Marsh, tenor Paul Althouse and Victor Herbert’s Orchestra. Why Cherkassky, a Russian émigré, was put on blue label (which sold for the same price as their black label records, 75¢ for a 10-incher and $1.00 for a 12-incher) and not Red Seal (which sold for 25¢ more, even higher if the record was by Caruso and higher yet when it was an ensemble piece by famous singers) remains a mystery. Twelve-year-old Yehudi Menuhin was immediately put on Red Seal for his first recordings. I guess they thought that playing the piano this well at 11 to 13 years old (the booklet gives his birth year as 1909, but it was really 1911; they got the old Russian calendar confused with the Western one) wasn’t as big a deal as playing the violin at 12. His playing here has much more “oomph” than one hears in his later performances, but he was very young and apparently full of beans. The piano tone captured on these discs is surprisingly full and rich for acoustic records, but Cherkassky’s tone was always one of his glories. A rarity in this series is the only composition I’ve ever seen ascribed to Cherkassky, his Prelude Pathétique. It’s a fairly nice piece, very Chopin-esque, which you’d expect from a teenager clearly under the Polish composer’s spell. There were two recordings of this, one from 1923 (see label pictured here) and the other from 1928. It is the latter we hear in this collection. One of the highlights of this early series is his amazingly felicitous performance of Rameau’s Tambourin from 1925, again with surprising touches of rubato. The only one of his 1923 recordings presented here is that of Beethoven’s Eccosaise in Eb.
Following the Eccosaise, we jump ahead to what may be his only chamber music recording, Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata with Marcel Hubert from 1934-35. It clearly shows why he wasn’t a great chamber musician; he seldom matches Hubert’s phrasing, but goes his own merry way while Hubert plays in a different style. But then, the French and Russian schools of performance, particularly in those years where they actually were different, were somewhat at odds with one another. The former was chaste, controlled and contained in tone and expression while the latter was smoldering and passionate, and this was as true for string players as it was for keyboardists. Only Alfred Cortot broke the barrier somewhat by playing with musical accuracy and emotional expression. Cherkassky’s solo outburst in the middle of the first movement is a perfect indication of the direction in which he was headed. Taken as a whole, however, it’s a particularly interesting interpretation of this echt-Romantic work, less sentimental than normal. For a Frenchman of that period, Hubert used a bit more vibrato, albeit a fast, lean one, than some of his peers. Surprisingly, Cherkassky seems to be on the same page as Hubert in the last two movements.
Going now to CD 1, we hear a load of Liszt, and pretty junky Liszt at that: the Hungarian Fantasia (with Karajan conducting), then two of his pathetic operatic paraphrases, one of Mozart’s Don Giovanni (“La ci darem la mano”) and the other of the Kermesse scene waltz from Gounod’s Faust. Cherkassky has a ball running through this florid but musically vapid folderol, but for me the music is in one ear and out the other. Of the three pieces on CD 1, the Fantasia is a little better than the other two, particularly in the orchestral writing which reminded me of some of Liszt’s tone poems for orchestra which I do like (Les Préludes, Orpheus and Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe), but as soon as the piano enters we’re in a sea of empty, flashy phrases that say nothing. Karajan’s muscular, no-nonsense conducting helps add backbone to the Fantasia, making it sound a bit better than it really is. In all three pieces, Cherkassky romps like a kid in a sandbox, finding his happy space, and in the operatic paraphrases his rich tone is captured to perfection.
The second CD is also Liszt, but somewhat better music: the first piano concerto, in a surprisingly bracing performance with the Philharmonia Orchestra led by Anatole Fistoulari, not quite as exciting as György Cziffra’s recording but interesting for the little touches and the splendid legato that Cherkassky brought to it, plus the Grand Galop Chromatique (another Cziffra specialty), Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13 and the ubiquitous Liebestraum, which is actually a good piece that has suffered badly from over-exposure, although I didn’t like Cherkassky’s overly-Romantic reading of the latter. Much too goopy for my taste, as is his reading of Saint-Saëns’ The Swan. On the other hand, his delicate touch and Romantic sensibilities worked well in Abram Chasins’ 3 Chinese Pieces, and he is light-footed and charming in Liadov’s slight Musical Snuffbox.
The third disc presents his performances of the first two Tchaikovsky Piano Concerti, both famous Deutsche Grammaphon studio recordings that created a stir when originally issued. The second concerto, in particular, was one of his pet pieces, one he continued to push for in concert performances throughout his career. He was one of the very few pianists who could actually get something out of it, and although he left us several versions I personally prefer the one he did with Hungarian conductor Ferenc Fricsay a bit earlier than this one. The orchestral opening of the first concerto drags a bit too much, as do later passages when the orchestra comes in, but as soon as Cherkassky enters he picks up the pace and gives one of his finest performances, more detailed and interesting than the highly overrated Martha Argerich. Unfortunately, Ludwig keeps reverting to ridiculous decelerandi in many of the orchestral passages, which ruins the overall effect, damaging the work’s structure and giving the music a ridiculous push-pull effect. Thank God we’ve gotten away from this kind of Tchaikovsky style nowadays! Richard Kraus, son of the famous German tenor Ernst Kraus, was a far greater conductor. This performance of the second concerto is almost on a par with the Fricsay reading, but not quite. Critics and audiences detest this concerto, considering it inferior Tchaikovsky, but Cherkassky told me that he felt it superior to the first because it was “better written and less sentimental.” He was right—yet he is still one of the very few pianists to get the real meat out of it. It’s also one of the few concerti he liked to play mostly straightforward, though his little rubato touches gave the music life.
CD 4 is all Chopin, one of his favorite composers and one that he generally (but not always) played with great engagement. The Op. 44 Polonaise is not one of the composer’s most popular, but Cherkassky plays the hell out of it. The other pieces are all quite popular works, and he does a generally fine job on them. CD 5 starts off with Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, a 1961 live performance from Salzburg, which starts out with the zippiest version of the opening “Promenade” I’ve ever heard in my life. (Perhaps Shura was a guy who went through art galleries on roller skates!) He likewise rips through “Gnomus” at the beginning, but slows down for the secondary theme, a touch I didn’t much care for. I did, however, like his rubato touches in “The Old Castle” quite a bit, and “The Oxcart at Bydlo” stomps through town at yet another rapid clip. “The Market Place at Limoges” is absolutely perfect, however, and he builds up quite a head of steam through “The Hut on Fowl’s Legs” to “The Great Gate at Kiev.” All in all, a somewhat eccentric performance, alternating some really interesting details with quirky ones—typical Shura Cherkassky. This is followed by the Prokofiev second piano concerto, played at a slower pace with more rhapsodic phrasing than you’re likely to hear it today, yet his interpretation works very well, projecting an atmosphere of mystery appropriate to the music. The little-known Herbert Menges is the conductor on this one. The loping rhythm that Cherkassky plays in the third movement put me in mind of slightly sinister gnomes walking crookedly down a street, while the way he plays the finale sounds something like off-kilter ragtime. Cool stuff!
The Prokofiev Concerto was originally issued by HMV in their “dull and boring cover” series, paired with the Shostakovich Piano Concerto No. 1, or more correctly, the Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and String Orchestra that opens CD 6 (though on the LP, the composer’s name was optimistically spelled “Chostakovitch” (these were the years when Feodor Chaliapin also, somehow, became “Schaljapin”). The Shostakovich concerto is also conducted and played a bit low-key, but in this case I’m not sure that it works as well as the Prokofiev. Yes, it’s interesting in its own way, but the phrasing is too “rounded” for this music, if you know what I mean, and also, to be honest, a bit drippy, making it sound like an old-time rendition of something by Tchaikovsky (or, as EMI would probably have spelled it back then, “Chaikovski”).
After the Shostakovich concerto we get some of the most interesting music on the set: Samuel Barber’s jazz-influenced Excursions (Cherkassky was fascinated by jazz-tinged classical pieces; Morton Gould’s Boogie Woogie Etude was a favorite encore), Alban Berg’s early piano sonata and the Stravinsky Three Movements from Petrouchka. He plays them all very well, albeit introducing a few rubato touches of his own in the second of the Barber pieces (since it’s a slow blues, that’s OK) and the first movement of the Stravinsky (where it does not fit at all). His performance of the last-named is utterly riveting, however, not least for his unbelievable clarity and articulation at fast speeds that almost makes it sound as if he is playing a gamelan. All of these are live performances. Cherkassky’s flawless technique was the result of almost nonstop practicing when he was not performing. He was married for a few years in the 1940s, but his wife simply couldn’t take his obsessive practicing and finally left him. “I’m kind of hard to live with,” he once stated ruefully, “so I’m better off alone.” The Circus Polka is junk, but somewhat interesting for its harmonic twists.
The Grieg and Schumann concerti from 1962 are famous studio recordings. By this time, though Cherkassky was still signed to HMV, the company was issuing his recordings on their budget-priced “Music For Pleasure” series. Apparently, they hadn’t made that much off him as an alternative to Horowitz on their full-price label, so he was downgraded. What’s interesting about these performances is that he was working with Adrian Boult, a no-nonsense conductor who had little patience for wayward tempo fluctuations (as were, previously Fricsay and Krauss), so Cherkassky had to toe the line a bit. Boult was still giving strong, full-blooded performances in those days (he was a mere youngster of 73), thus the orchestral portions of these works have plenty of backbone, which helps pull the structure together, and since he, like his good friends Toscanini and Fritz Busch, favored brisk tempi, Cherkassky has only a few moments where he can pull his rubato shenanigans. When I was a young classical tyro, I very much liked another budget recording of this work by Kjell Baekkelund and the Oslo Philharmonic conducted by Odd Grüner-Hegge on RCA Victrola, but then I discovered the Dinu Lipatti recording with Alceo Galliera. Now, to be honest, I think this one is the best I’ve ever heard. No overdone lingering, good, strong playing by Cherkassky, and decent stereo sound (it comes from the same era as the Baekkelund recording).
The Schumann concerto is a nice performance if not on a par with the more famous versions by Dinu Lipatti (with Karajan) and Van Cliburn (with Fritz Reiner). Boult favors somewhat relaxed tempi here, which leads Cherkassky more into a ruminative mood much of the time, albeit with strong sections that ring out, but the performance lacks a certain continuity and does not point up Schumann’s innovative construction—particularly the first movement cadenza, which is played in a ruminative manner better suited for Rachmaninov. The second movement almost falls apart from this approach, although the good tempo opening the third movement salvages things a bit.
Predictably, Cherkassky is better in the Schumann Fantasia, where he can indulge in tempo shifts at will without damaging the music while pressing forward. To a certain degree, he modified this approach somewhat in his later years. The Schumann Piano Sonata No. 1 is a famous recording, formerly issued on a single CD by Ermitage, and is quite good in its ruminative way. His interpretation of the Brahms Paganini Variations is utterly fascinating, alternating between straightforward, aggressive phrases and warm, rubato ones—yet another example of his command of chiaroscuro—yet he never loses sight here of the music’s structure. When I saw him in recital, from a front-row seat, I noted that he was constantly working that sustain pedal, up and down, up and down, as if he were pumping on an organ. When I asked him about it afterwards, he said he wasn’t conscious of it, it was just instinctual, but it explains a lot of the magic he was able to create in otherwise plain, straightforward passages. He brings the same sensibilities to the Mendelssohn Cappricios, with equally fascinating results.
Cherkassky and Mozart might seem, at first thought, not to go together, yet his performance of the Sonata in C, K. 330, is light and quicksilver, with very few decelerandi or pauses. And yet, he gives the music more color and charm than most Mozart specialists I’ve heard, particularly the facile and vapid Alicia de Larrocha.
And there you have it: a pretty full view of Cherkassky in a somewhat wide range of repertoire, his good side and his quirky moods. This is who he was; I personally liked him when he was on his game, but being a man of whim, you didn’t always know what you were getting. Overall, recommended.
—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley
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