Shura Cherkassky (1909-1995)

Among the very greatest, sublime whenever he was so minded, Cherkassky could also wilt and lose heart in the cold, unforgiving ambience of the recording studio

Author: 
Bryce Morrison

Shura Cherkassky (1909-1995)

  • Variations on 'Là ci darem la mano' (Mozart's Do
  • Etudes symphoniques, 'Symphonic Studies'
  • (28) Variations on a Theme by Paganini
  • Kaleidoskop
  • Rush Hour in Hong Kong
  • (3) Sonatas and 3 Partitas, Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV1004, Chaconne
  • Sonata for Piano
  • Harmonies poétiques et réligieuses, No. 7, Funérailles
  • Sonata for Piano No. 13, 'quasi una fantasia'
  • Impromptus, No. 2 in E flat
  • Impromptus, No. 3 in G flat
  • Kreisleriana
  • (4) Scherzos, No. 1 in B minor, Op. 20 (1831-32)
  • Wein, Weib und Gesang, 'Wine, Woman and Song'
  • Sonata for Piano No. 3
  • Mazurkas (Complete), No. 25 in B minor, Op. 33/4 (1837-38)
  • Mazurkas (Complete), No. 41 in C sharp minor, Op. 63/3 (1846)
  • Nocturnes, No. 8 in D flat, Op. 27/2
  • Nocturnes, No. 18 in E, Op. 62/2
  • Nocturnes, No. 19 in E minor, Op. 72/1
  • Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise
  • (19) Hungarian Rhapsodies, No. 2 in C sharp minor
  • Sonata for Piano
  • Petrushka
  • Prélude, choral et fugue
  • Sonata for Piano
  • (4) Etudes de rythme, Ile de feu I
  • (4) Etudes de rythme, Ile de feu II
  • Variations on a theme of Corelli
  • Pictures at an Exhibition
  • Sonata for Piano No. 13
  • Touches
  • Paraphrase on 'Eugene Onegin' (Tchaikovsky)

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' Etude) are vintage Cherkassky and so are a few of EMI's records from the 1950s (some of which have reappeared in Philips's two-disc reissue in its Great Pianists of the 20th Century series, 1/99). And this brings me to the Nimbus reissue, a seven-disc celebration of a relationship that, alas, never quite got off the ground. Anxious to accommodate his every passing whim and fancy Nimbus gave Cherkassky carte blanche. He could record what he wanted when he wanted and how he wanted. There would be minimal editing and the conditions could be more like a concert hall than a studio. The stage seemed set, a promise of 'calm seas and auspicious gales'.
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 Wine, Women and Song also came closer to the quality of performances heard on ASV and Decca (whose eight-CD series compiled from live broadcasts is now sadly deleted). Elfin and enchanting, teasing and elusive, Cherkassky, like so many others, was called the 'last of the romantics'. But he was surely the beginning and end of his own tradition and no one else's. Quietly amused by the furore that surrounded him, Cherkassky was among the greatest of all pianists.'

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