Shura Cherkassky (1909-1995)
How one misses music's most mercurial pianist and genius! Life without Cherkassky is not the same, but the memories remain. Of how many pianists can you say that you remember some sudden flash of insight or musical epiphany, some quixotic magic that occurred, say, 20 years ago, as if it were yesterday? How easy to recall some flawless and stylistically immaculate Mozart, a transcendental reading of Chopin's Op 25 Etudes and the Gounod-Liszt Faust Waltz. There was a Liszt Sonata at the Royal Festival Hall as dazzling as it was strange and Chopin's F sharp Impromptu with its coda reeled off like so much iridescent thread. One night there was a performance of Rachmaninov's Third Concerto where Cherkassky came and went like the musical equivalent of a Cheshire Cat ('Now you hear me; now you don't') and, a few weeks later, another where his command was imperial though flecked with a wealth of colours, textures and nuances.
Inevitably, such reminiscence needs the ballast of recordings which capture once more that inimitable voice and character. And there is the problem. How do you perpetuate on disc Cherkassky's 'will o' the wisp' quality? Like a Chinese box, one difficulty is contained in another. Cherkassky loathed recording, missed the give and take of audience contact, the electricity that sparked on his truly great nights. He saw the recording process as cold and clinical, something alien to his capricious nature. Even if you got something down more or less satisfactorily, would you like it the next day or, in Cherkassky's case, the next minute? And the business of playbacks, of listening to oneself hour after hour to choose this or that take seemed inconceivable with Cherkassky. Easily bored, he would allow his mind to drift away towards other more enticing or immediately attractive prospects and his luckless colleagues were left to engage his attention as best they could.
So what, then, of Cherkassky on disc? The entire subject is tantalising and frustrating. Some early HMVs (Chaminade's Autrefois and Liszt's D flat Consolation, the Chopin F minor Fantasie and most of all Saint-Saens' 'Prelude and Fugue'
Alas, with Cherkassky, things rarely worked out quite the way they were meant to. Clearly and audibly uncomfortable with such a congenial setting, he hardly gave of his best and his relative successes are few and far between. What is one to make of his Chopin B minor Sonata, where the playing is so arbitrary and perfunctory and, astonishingly, technically slipshod and ill-focused? Is there a more tired or dispirited performance of that great and equestrian finale on record? The Op 22 Polonaise (a work Cherkassky could play with a coruscating wit and brio) gives us more of the same. The introductory Andante spianato drags unmercifully and the Polonaise comes close to collapse. Sample Cherkassky's way with the octave bravura at 8'14'' or his rhythmic distortion at 10'25'' and you can hardly imagine you are listening to one of the world's great pianists.
True, he is more successful in miniatures, in a magically hushed close to the E major Nocturne, Op 62 No 2, and the polyphonic web he spins around the conclusion to the C sharp minor Mazurka, Op 63 No 3 (with melody and countermelody emerging as if from a conjuror's hat), would have startled and bemused Chopin. The B minor Mazurka is characteristically piquant and the D flat Nocturne, confided very slowly, has its moments. But virtually all the other performances are excelled by Cherkassky elsewhere. In the Liszt Sonata he lets phrase after phrase slip from his grasp and even where Liszt commands him to be sempre forte ed agitato he glides shyly into retreat.
That ideas come to him willy nilly, on the spur of the moment, is fine and central to his nature, but that they are presented so vaguely without energy or resource is deeply unsettling; doubly so when you know how gloriously Cherkassky could play all this music. Stravinsky's Petrushka sounds, absurdly, like a struggle against overwhelming odds, and although it is good to hear Cherkassky in Bernstein's Touches, a clever piece of Americana, neither work nor performance is sufficiently memorable. Liszt's Funerailles is more absorbing and Cherkassky's performance of Beethoven's E flat Sonata, Op 27 No 1, reminds us that he could be respectful if, thankfully, hardly sober or deferential. The Schumann and Franck items flash intermittently with the sort of felicities that set Cherkassky apart, and Chopin's First Scherzo finds the pianist near his best form, with so many insistent repeats providing an opportunity for stylish realignment and voicing.
Classic Cherkassky encores such as Hofmann's Kaleidoscope, Chasins' Rush Hour in Hong Kong and the Strauss-Godowsky