MENDELSSOHN: Rondo capriccioso in E. SCHUMANN: Piano Sonata No. 1 in F-sharp min. BERG: Piano Sonata, Op. 1. DEBUSSY: L’Isle Joyeuse. STRAVINSKY: 3 Movements from Petrushka. POULENC: Toccata / Symphonie/Ermitage ERM-1033
The opening line of Piero Raltalino’s liner notes for this CD is, “Can a pianist suddenly become great at the age of eighty?” He answers his own question by saying, “I hardly think so. Pianists are professionally long lived…At any rate, you don’t suddenly become great at age eighty.”
The reference here is simply that Shura Cherkassky, after having made a tremendous impact on the piano world as a youngster—he visited President Woodrow Wilson in the White House and became one of the youngest artists ever signed to Victor’s Red Seal label (in 1923, when he was only 14)—somehow disappeared from sight as a concert artist after the beginning of World War II. He had moved to England as a precaution, and in fact remained a resident of that country for the rest of his life, but such homegrown pianists as Solomon and Myra Hess overshadowed him during those years.
After the war, other Russian pianists like Benno Moiseivitch had their careers resurrected by the record companies, but Cherkassky, after making a couple of concertos with conductor Ferenc Fricsay in the early 1950s, languished in England until the late 1950s-early ‘60s until he was recorded again, most of those records made for the budget “World Record Club” label. Then, suddenly, he emerged from the shadows in the late 1970s-early ‘80s in a series of solo recitals and orchestral concerts. He was a hot ticket once again. The record companies now clamored for his services, with Great Britain’s Nimbus label winning out on the contract. As per his preference, he was normally recorded live.
This album of predominantly live performances, unfortunately undated by Symphonie/Ermitage, dates from 1963, but could just as easily have been made 20 years later. And it is quintessentially Cherkasskian, meaning that it fully captures his unique pianistic personality…not all his recordings do. He was far superior to his more famous rival Horowitz in his ability to phrase and color his playing, and indeed the coloristic aspects of these performances speak volumes as to how great he was. When he was “on,” he was as spellbinding a pianist as any I’ve ever heard, and that includes such greats as William Masselos, Arthur Rubinstein and Claude Frank. Cherkassky’s repertoire, though essentially rooted in the Romantic-era classics, was always a bit eccentric. He was a staunch champion of Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto, the one no one usually liked (three recordings of it over the years, of which the earliest with Fricsay is the best), and he played a small but wide-ranging selection of 20th-century works. On this CD, they include the Berg Sonata, Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrouchka and Poulenc’s Toccata, but he also had a yen for the Gershwin Concerto, Britten’s “Holiday Diary,” and—perhaps strangest of all—Morton Gould’s Boogie Woogie Etude.
For those who already know and love Cherkassky, then, this disc will be a treat unless you already have these recordings. For those who don’t know Cherkassky, I’m sure they’ll be a revelation. Even if you have a dozen other performances of most of these works, you really haven’t lived until you hear what this magician of the keyboard could make of them. His art combined a light, almost elfin touch with surprising moments of power and energy. Undoubtedly the most surprising piece for more traditional listeners will be the Berg Sonata, and although it is obviously Cherkassky playing this—his graceful sense of phrasing is always a hallmark of his artistry—he does not Romanticize the music as one might expect, but rather maintains artistic objectivity.
Debussy’s L’isle joyeuse is played, perhaps, a tad more forcefully than normal, but Cherkassky has so much fun with it that it’s hard to deny him his enjoyment. The pianist smudges some of the fast mid-range runs in the piano transcription of Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrushka, which reminds us that, good as he was, Cherkassky’s technique was not ironclad or always flawless, though he does not actually miss any notes. That being said, his phrasing (once again) keeps us riveted to his performance. Cherkassky wraps up this recital with an effervescent performance of Poulenc’s Toccata, which he evidently relished.
All in all, this is a splendid album and one that needs to be in your collection if you’re a Cherkassky fan—and even if you’re not. He was simply one of a kind, and this album shows just how versatile and interesting he was.
—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley