The Mercurial Talent of Shura Cherkassky


“Some people like my playing and some don’t, but nobody can say that I’m boring.” —Shura Cherkassky

For someone like me, raised in America during the 1950s and ‘60s, the biggest names in the classical piano world were Horowitz and Rubinstein. Horowitz was the super-virtuoso who could play anything; Rubinstein was the last great Romantic who specialized in Beethoven and Chopin. I never saw the former in person and didn’t care to. Most of his recordings, to my ears, even as a tyro who didn’t know a lot about music, sounded simply awful: overdone keyboard-banging, exaggerated rhythms, and a lack of legato. And frankly, most of his recordings still strike my ears this way, the only exceptions being his studio recordings of Scriabin sonatas and two live performances with his father-in-law, Toscanini (the 1943 Tchaikovsky Concerto No. 1 and the 1948 Brahms Concerto No. 2). But I did see Rubinstein in person, and he was so good—particularly in playing his encores—that he inspired me to learn to play de Falla’s Ritual Fire Dance, which I did for my astonished piano teacher who thought I didn’t have a good enough technique to play it. Yes, I heard about other pianists who were being promoted by the record companies, particularly Claudio Arrau (EMI), Van Cliburn (RCA) and Glenn Gould (Columbia), but Horowitz and Rubinstein were considered to be “it.”

Imagine my surprise, then, when I went to a Cincinnati Symphony concert in the late 1970s, to see and hear a Russian pianist I’d never heard of before named Shura Cherkassky; to hear him play a work I’d never heard before, Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto; and to be completely bowled over by his playing and the work as he presented it. I’m sure some readers of this blog will disagree with me, but within the world of American classical music, Cherkassky was barely known—even less well known than such names as Leonard Shure, William Kapell (long dead by then but still pushed as a legend), Egon Petri or Bruce Hungerford, who were on the outskirts of the classical constellation of stars.

Cherkassky’s performance riveted me because it had the three qualities I admire most: musicality, excitement, and imagination. He didn’t just play notes, he pulled emotions out of the keyboard. He made the music come alive without (in this work and performance) distorting the music. He stunned me.

Naturally, that experience made me want to explore him further, but much to my surprise there weren’t that many recordings available—in record stores, in the classical section, in the United States, in the Midwest—by him. And the ones I heard were disappointing. They didn’t sound like I had heard him in person. They were either slow and disconnected-sounding or well played but lacking the feeling and excitement I heard in person. In 1979 a studio recording of Cherkassky playing the Tchaikovsky Second Concerto with the Cincinnati Symphony appeared. Of course I bought a copy immediately, but it, too, was disappointing. The tempos were pretty good but not as tight as the live performance I heard, and his playing was clean but somewhat uninvolved.

That’s when I began to understand, slowly but surely, that Cherkassy was very much an artist of impulse. When he was inspired he was very, very good, but when he wasn’t he was just OK or even dull, and like many such musicians, he was seldom at his best in the recording studio.


Young Shura Cherkassky in 1924.

I also learned about his background: born in Odessa in 1911, fled to America with his family to escape the Bolshevik Revolution, lived in this country for several years, made his first records for Victor between 1923 and 1928. Studied with Josef Hofmann until 1935, whereupon he began touring extensively and moved to Great Britain. With the coming of World War II he moved to Hollywood, California, where he stayed until after the War, then moved back to England where he became a legend. He continued to live mostly in England and mostly in hotel rooms for the rest of his life.

A couple of years later Cherkassky returned to Cincinnati to give a recital at Xavier University’s Piano Series. Of course I went to see him, and he was again fantastic. Here, in closer quarters, I was able to observe his playing in greater detail. One thing I noticed was his constant pumping of the sustain pedal—on and off, off and on, which colored and shaded his playing and created much of the shimmer one heard. After the recital I stood on line among other admirers (mostly little old ladies) to ask him about this. When I finally got up to him and asked him about it, he said that he didn’t know, he didn’t even think about it, that it was probably just instinctive (which I found interesting). But here’s the funny thing: as I turned to leave, the little old lady who had been just ahead of me in line came up and asked me if he spoke to me in English. Astonished, I said yes. She told me that when she started gushing at him about how wonderful he was, he answered her in Russian! So that’s how he held fawning admirers at arm’s length!

As time went on I started collecting more Cherkassky recordings, sporadically, particularly the “live” recordings issued by Nimbus and Decca, but even many of these were disappointing. Then, when I began to feel that I’d never find Cherkassky recordings that captured him the way I had heard him, I ran across these four albums:

Fricsay Vol 4
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 2 in G, Op. 44; Liszt: Piano Concerto No. 1 in Eb
, S. 124 / Ferenc Fricsay, cond; RIAS Symphony Orch. / Audite 95.499

Cherkassky left us four recordings of the Tchaikovsky Second, one of his pet projects. The first, from 1947 with the Santa Monica Symphony conducted by Jacques Rachmilovich (Concert Hall Society) and the last, from 1979 with the Cincinnati Symphony conducted by Walter Susskind (Vox), are considered the least interesting. The one most collectors know is the 1956 Deutsche Grammophon performance with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Richard Krauss, and it’s not as dull as the other two, but this 1951 version with Fricsay is a firecracker. What’s ironic about this is that Cherkassky reportedly hated conductors who were too strict in tempo, and Fricsay, a conductor very much in the mold of Toscanini, was nothing if not strict in tempo, but both the Tchaikovsky and the Liszt (a live performance from 1952) are the Cherkassky I remember. The sound quality is very good for the early ‘50s.

Cherkassky Chopin
Chopin: Etudes, Opp. 10 & 25; Barcarolle in F#
; Fantasy in F minor; Fantasie-Impromptu in C# minor; Nocturne in F minor, Op. 55 No. 1; Piano Sonata No. 3; Preludes Op. 28 / Philips 456742 (2 CDs)

These are mostly mono recordings of Chopin but all of them are utterly fantastic. Rather than pulling the music out of the keyboard, here Cherkassky makes it flutter and sing as if the Etudes were played by butterflies. This performance of the Barcarolle is the second-best I’ve ever heard after the old Columbia 78 by Walter Gieseking. The Piano Sonata No. 3 is not quite up to the level of the rest of the album but still better than many other versions (although I prefer Dinu Lipatti’s performance to all others). An excellent, excellent album.

Cherkassky WRC Recordings
Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 32; “Eroica” Variations. Clementi: Sonata in B-flat, Op. 47 No. 2. Schubert: Piano Sonata in A, D. 959. Chopin: Fantaisie-Impromptu in C# minor, Op. 66; Barcarolle in F#; Nocturne in F minor, Op. 55 No. 1; Waltz in E, Op. Post.; Scherzo No. 3 in CT. Schumann: 3 Fantaisiestücke, Op. 111. Schumann-Tausig: Der Contrabandiste, Op. 74 No. 10. Liszt: Consolation No. 3 in DI; Grand Galop Chromatique; Liebestraum No. 3; Grands Etudes de Paganini No. 3, “La Campanella” / Guild 2398/99 (2 CDs)

These are Cherkassky’s complete late 1950s-early ‘60s recordings for the World Record Club label plus an extended-play 45 made for HMV (the Chopin Fantaisie-Impromptu and Liszt Liebestraum). Some of the Chopin works on here are also on the Philips album, but they are different recordings. Your reaction as to which you prefer will depend on your individual taste, but by and large these WRC recordings caught Cherkassky in a particularly relaxed and inventive mood, especailly the big sonatas of Beethoven and Schubert. I’ve heard quite a few versions of this last, great sonata, including one live performance by the late Claude Frank that was frankly disappointing when compared to his recording of it (he programmed it at the last minute because his daughter, violinist Pamela Frank, was unable to perform with him due to an injury). My other favorite versions of this great sonata are the ones by Artur Schnabel (the 1942 RCA Victor recording, not the EMI version), Annie Fischer (from her complete set), John O’Conor and Michael Korstick, but Cherkassky’s may just be the most personal and intense reading of all (as O’Conor’s is, to my mind, the most purely spiritual). The other works all benefit from Cherkassky’s superb sense of touch and phrasing. A real surprise here is Liszt’s Grand Galop Chromatique, exactly the kind of “empty virtuoso piece” that one would not think of Cherkassky playing in a million years (it was a specialty of the great Gypsy virtuoso György Cziffra), yet he not only revels in the bizarre chromatic movement of the piece but tosses it off in a playful manner, which is really the best way of approaching it. Overall, a fascinating album.

Cherkassky Chopin Concertos
Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 1 (BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, cond. Christopher Adey); Piano Concerto No. 2 (BBC Symphony Orchestra, cond. Richard Hickox) / ICA Classics 5085

These live performances from Scotland and England in the early 1980s capture Cherkassky at his very best, in good digital sound. Earlier in my life I loved the way Rubinstein played these concertos on a stereo recording from the 1960s but, after hearing this CD, I can’t even listen to that disc any more (although there is a live performance from the 1940s by Rubinstein with Bruno Walter conducting that is superb in a different way from this). Cherkassky is an absolute magician in these performances; as good as you may think pianist X or Y is in these concertos—and yes, I’ve heard some very fine modern recordings of these works—a side-by-side comparison consistently gives the edge to Cherkassky. And believe me when I tell you this: I am NOT a huge fan of the Chopin concertos. I find the orchestra parts weak in musical ideas and poorly scored, and here, even in the second concerto where the pianist is paired with the superb Richard Hickox (one of my favorite British conductors), there just isn’t much you can do with the orchestral part. Plain and simply, it is relatively uninteresting; yet Cherkassky’s playing is so good that he even seems to make this rather lame accompaniment sound good.

So…these albums sum up, for me, the essence of Cherkassky. Some of the others, although interesting, are either too slow and/or too wayward in tempo and phrasing. A strange man, he was married once but not for very long. Reportedly, he divorced her because she couldn’t stand his practicing four hours a day (on the recommendation of Hofmann) and he wouldn’t settle down anywhere, preferring to live in hotel rooms. When he died in December 1995, it was learned that he owned nothing: his television, CD player and stereo set, his evening dress, even his piano, were all rentals. Cherkassky believed in treading lightly and leaving no footprint, except in the recordings listed above (and I’m sure there are one or two I’ve missed) that show what a superb and almost magical musician he could be.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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One thought on “The Mercurial Talent of Shura Cherkassky

  1. I just found hmv blp1013 in a charity shop. I’d never heard of this guy before today but I was kind of impressed by that album, and will now get the ones you write about!


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