Cherkassky Live - 80th Birthday Recital
I confess to a modicum of preliminary scepticism. Surely a pianist just turned 80, and one who has built his reputation on the virtuoso rather than the philosophical end of the repertoire would need to be heard with a degree of indulgence? Surely he could not merit the anecdotal panegyric from his producer, the recently lamented Peter Wadland, which stands in place of notes on the music?
No, he wouldn't and yes, he does. This is quite simply a glorious recital from first note to last (three items from the Carnegie Hall concert—two encores and the Fourth Chopin Scherzo have had to be held over for a future release). If I say that it is an entirely worthy successor to the Queen Elizabeth Hall performances issued as Vol. 1 of this series (10/91), then keyboard connoisseurs will know there can be no higher praise. Even those who have hitherto resisted Cherkassky's brand of caprice may find it difficult not to surrender on this occasion.
The opening phrase of the Bach/Busoni Chaconne immediately compels attention, and it does so not by perverse trickery, but by the tools of any great pianist's trade—depth of tone, richly-layered voicing of each chord, precise yet spontaneous nuance. The entire performance is an unbroken flow of declamatory eloquence, its moments of mystery and fantasy held in perfect structural balance with the dramatic accumulations and climaxes. In fact, I would gently take issue with Peter Wadland, not for describing it as ''riveting and one of the greatest performances I have heard him give'', but when he writes of ''very little Bach or Busoni here, but a lot of Cherkassky. In his typical style he reverses most dynamics and plays different tempos.'' On the contrary, Cherkassky is for the most part meticulous in his observance of Busoni's markings, it is merely that his pianistic imagination transforms them into a magical substance that no notation could begin to suggest. There are some small fluffs in long scale and arpeggio passages, but nothing that damages the atmosphere or deters me from hearing the performance again and again, and I applaud Decca's decision not to use any material from the patching session the day after the concert.
A fascinating dissertation could be written about Cherkassky's Schumann Etudes Symphoniques with detailed comparisons between the Carnegie Hall performance, his 1975 QEH account (L'Oiseau-Lyre, 11/76—nla) and his Nimbus CD ((CD) NI5020). I doubt whether any recorded performance could match this latest one for its daringly varied, yet always convincing repeats for its sense of every note having been made the player's own without for a moment overstepping the borders of style and taste. This is a rare marriage of artistic communication and freedom of the spirit. Duty compels me to note that the presto possibile chords of the Ninth Etude are less happy than they once might have been, and Decca's recording, otherwise practically ideal in balance and perspective, has one or two moments of slight distortion.
I am at a loss to choose between the Carnegie Hall account of the Chopin F minor Nocturne and the quite different one from Decca's Vol. 1 QEH compilation. Both are miracles of spontaneity and natural flow. Similarly, no one who has heard Ives's piano playing or looked at the state of his manuscripts, will criticize Cherkassky for rhythmic license in the
Perhaps predictably, the audience's enthusiasm grows in inverse proportion to the quality of the music, an impression heightened by the presumably foreshortened applause between items. For myself I don't find that Pabst's Eugene Onegin Paraphrase holds my attention through its 13-minute duration, for all the loving care Cherkassky lavishes on its variational contrivances. On the other hand how could anyone resist Morton Gould's Boogie Woogie Etude when played with such relish and abandon? This was obviously a rare and treasurable occasion; I'm sure I would have been cheering as loudly as the rest of the audience.'