Air and Variations (The Harmonious Blacksmith)
Variations and Fugue on a theme of Handel, Op.24
Piano Sonata, Op.1
Fifteen Little Variations
Piano Sonata No.3 in B minor, Op.58
Shura Cherkassky (piano)
Recorded in April 1963 and December 1964 (Chopin) in BBC Studios, London
Reviewed by: Colin Clarke
Reviewed: June 2007
CD No: BBC LEGENDS
Duration: 80 minutes
Shura Cherkassky is, in truth, a legend. And there are aspects of his playing on this disc that explain why. One of a now-extinct generation that interpreted pre-Classical music in a way that may not now be regarded as ‘authentic’ but with real heart and spirit and who rendered Romantic music with vision and vitality, Cherkassky (who died in 1995) is sorely missed. These BBC recordings include real gems.
Handel’s Air and Variations (from the Fifth Keyboard Suite, HWV430), show real nobility. It is all here – jewel-like, cascading scales, massive tonal variety and, yes, some finger-slips. Such things matter less with Cherkassky than they can do with that other wrong-note merchant who happened also to be a great musician, Alfred Cortot. Cherkassky’s view of the music seems complete.
The recorded balance seems a touch closer for the statement of the Handel theme that opens Brahms’s Variations, although, curiously, it hails from exactly the same source. The same bejewelled touch is there, though, as is the same love shining through. The gradual addition of the pedal seems to time-transport the theme through to Brahms (and, if one is candidly honest, beyond!); the hefty bass-heavy instrumentation after Brahms has ‘arrived’ leaves the listener in no doubt as to the true territory, however.
Cherkassky’s account of the Handel Variations is a journey through an ever-changing landscape. It is difficult to know what to admire more, the playing or the secure compositional hand behind it all. Cherkassky possesses a tone that is capable of all the burnished richness that Brahms’s writing demands and positively smoulders at times. The Fugue is hugely assertive right from the start. The structure is lucid at all times, giving the impression of both direction and stature. Alternatives exist, of course. Fleisher (Sony), Moiseiwitsch, Richter and Solomon (all Testament) spring to mind. Cherkassky joins this stellar list with playing of intensely assured integrity and huge fantasy.
Alban Berg’s Sonata has recently risen in popularity, it seems. It has always been a little miracle of a piece, though. It is more ‘around’ than ‘in’ B minor (clear B minor assertions only appear at significant structural junctures); its intense chromaticism coupled with rigorous part-writing is its main point, something Cherkassky fully understands. He clearly hears the piece in crepuscular colours, treating many passages as if handling delicate eggshells. The climax, though, carries real weight.
Nikos Skalkottas’s Little Variations lasts a mere six minutes. The theme is marked Allegretto scherzando. It is spiky and capricious (and not a little malevolent here – ‘impish’ might well sum it up). The Variations pose real technical difficulties for the performer, although not to Cherkassky, who seems to find an underlying spirit of the dance wherever possible. He also plays up the nods towards Schoenberg. Prokofiev’s Toccata acts in true contrast, buzzing with energy before jerking nervously. Cherkassky feeds off the high-tension energy of the piece, taking full heed of the ‘marcato’ direction. Yet, even here, there is something dance-like, however grotesquely distorted it may be, behind it all.
Finally, Chopin’s B minor Sonata. No-one can topple Lipatti form the top of the list, but Cherkassky has a good go. He is more chameleon-like than many other pianists. Where Pollini has a consistency of approach (and even piano tone), Cherkassky bends with the wind, his rhythm infinitely subtle without ever losing the underlying pulse. Lines can sing with vocal sweetness as surely as fortes can erupt. Perhaps the scherzo is (surprisingly) a touch careful, but the Largo is dark and bleak, at first, with even a sense of over-projection in the right-hand line. Desolation is the word here, something that carries through to the finale. Lighter on the pedal than many, Cherkassky nevertheless finds grandeur here. His emphasis seems not to be on the cumulative, though. He is happy to remain with the moment and let the movement’s trajectory take care of itself (which, miraculously, it does). Some rather approximate passages may worry some listeners.
The recording for the sonata, although later in date, seems more muffled than the rest of the recital, but this is a memorable, flowing reading, part of a very recommendable release.