Chopin
Piano Concerto No.1 in E minor, Op.11
Piano Concerto No.2 in F minor, Op.21
Shura Cherkassky (piano)

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Christopher Adey [Piano Concerto No.1]
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Richard Hickox

Piano Concerto No.1 recorded on 3 December 1981 in Studio 1, Broadcasting House, Glasgow; No.2 on 30 August 1983 at Royal Albert Hall, London
CD No: ICA CLASSICS ICAC 5085
Duration: 75 minutes
Reviewed: February 2013
This release features the great Ukrainian pianist Shura Cherkassy in a composer he was particularly associated with. Chopin’s E minor Piano Concerto is a studio performance, while the F minor comes from the BBC Proms. Cherkassky was 72 when he performed the E minor work – with little or no diminution in his technical prowess. The singing tone, innate command of rubato, legato, and seemingly infinite capacity to shade and shape each phrase, are as distinctive as ever. However there is a marked difference in the quality of these two performances, in that the First Concerto (which was composed after the Second, but published first) features orchestral playing and conducting that are not up to international standard.
From the opening bars, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra plods its way through the score, with rough, thin string tone, and poor ensemble, under a conductor who seems unable to respond to Cherkassky’s mercurial genius. There is also a problem with the sound, which is dynamically constricted, has a congested midrange, and thin and metallic piano tone. Despite this, from Cherkassky’s opening flourish, followed by a pause, slowing for the first subject proper, constant small tempo adjustments and natural give-and-take, it is obvious that Cherkassky is giving an object lesson in what interpretation should be about – bringing music to thought-provoking, imaginative life. Time and again he will (without becoming predictable) slow the final cadence of a phrase, linger dreamingly over a passage, and every time the three main subjects appear, play them differently, without ever impeding the flow. In Cherkassky’s hands the opening of the slow movement features a range of dynamics, and the relaxed tempo allows him to weave an ever-changing web of sound, centred around luminous tone (you hear this despite the reproduction) and exquisite legato phrasing. In the finale Cherkassky’s leisurely speed allows him to use every aspect of his technique to uncover unexpected decorations, rhythmic inflections and patterns that would.
At the Proms two years later, Cherkassky was partnered by a conductor who was better able to respond to the soloist’s quixotic nature; there was no guarantee on the night what Cherkassky would do. Hickox’s approach to opening movement’s introduction is powerfully straight, and while Cherkassky is capricious over tempo – the second subject is wonderfully supple – the overall approach is quite direct. The Larghetto is a miracle of old-world phrasing and expressive largesse. Each one of the trills and arabesques brings different weight and tonal shading, and the numerous grace-notes are almost sketched in. Tovey said that “the finale is a delightful example of the long ramble through picturesque musical scenery”. Here Cherkassky takes a slightly faster than average tempo. His rhythmic invention ensures that the mazurka-like second-subject bounces along (although one would have liked the more of the strings’ col legno accompaniment). The coda is delightful, as Cherkassky accelerates (although not to Presto as suggested in the booklet note) and fully exploits the brillante marking.
This release is a delight. Only Zimerman, Pletnev and Argerich play with such wonderful expressive licence today, and as such it is a marvellous (and salutary) reminder of what was once the norm in playing the piano.

 

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