ICA Classics – Shura Cherkassky [Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini]

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Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op.43
Piano Sonata No.7 in B flat, Op.83
Three Pieces from Petrushka [transcribed by the composer]
Polka de W.R.
Rameau, arr. Godowsky
Bourée fantasque

Shura Cherkassky (piano)

Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester [Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra]
Zdeněk Mácal [Rachmaninov]

Recorded 1951 (Prokofiev & Stravinsky), 1953 (other solo items) and 1970 (Rachmaninov) in Saal 1, Funkhaus, Cologne (Rachmaninov) & Saal 2 (Prokofiev & Stravinsky) and Villa Berg, Stuttgart

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: June 2011
Duration: 76 minutes



Shura Cherkassky was born in 1909 in Odessa. He gave his first recital at the age of thirteen. However if you look at 78rpm catalogues, his name does not feature prominently and he seems to have had difficulty in making the transition from prodigy to mature artist. Things changed in 1946 – as Alan Thorpe Albeson points out in his booklet note for this ICA release – when Cherkassky got rave reviews for a performance of Rachmaninov’s Paganini Rhapsody with Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt conducting. Cherkassky wasn’t at home in the recording studio and didn’t stay with any company for long. In 1953 he recorded the Rhapsody and Stravinsky’s Petrushka movements for HMV (ALP 1616), which has not been issued on compact disc. Copies of the LP are hard to find, so these broadcasts fill a gap in his discography, equally for the Prokofiev, which he did not record commercially.

Cherkassky was considered something of a maverick – an old-school pianist who gave highly individual readings. But as with all great re-creative artists, everything Cherkassky did was carefully thought-out and illuminating. The Rachmaninov receives a measured, very serious account. Rachmaninov doesn’t start with the Theme – Paganini’s 24th Caprice for solo violin – but with an Introduction and Variation I, followed by the Theme and a further twenty-three Variations, almost three-quarters of which last less than a minute, which lends the work an epigrammatic quality. Cherkassy emphasises the appearance of the ‘Dies Irae’, and sees the Variations as falling into emotional and expressive blocs, over and above the division of the work into three movements that correspond to concerto form. Nowhere does he make sudden tempo changes and nowhere does he use virtuosity for anything other than expressive purposes. The theme itself is measured, the first variation rhythmically exact (throughout Cherkassky’s rhythmic pointing is exceptional), the tone crystalline, while the following two Variations are impressionistic, but serious. In Variation VII Cherkassy evokes tolling bells at a very slow tempo and XI becomes a reverie that sounds more akin to Debussy than is the norm, the start of the ‘slow movement’, which Cherkassky makes into a rhapsody within a Rhapsody. If impressionism was evident earlier, then Cherkassky brings out the influence of Schumann, clearly heard in XV and the two subsequent Variations that lead to the famous XVIII, all object lessons in pedal use and rubato. Rachmaninov was a great composer, but profound is not a word usually associated with him, and yet Cherkassky gives possibly the most beautiful – and profound – account of XVIII, akin to a late Chopin Nocturne or Beethoven adagio. In the ‘finale’ there is no ostentation and nowhere is Cherkassky’s golden singing tone compromised. Regrettably though, the orchestral playing and conducting are provincial, and, paradoxically, the very fine stereo sound doesn’t help. There is plenty of depth, width, and despite some congestion in tutti passages, definition, which means that numerous ensemble lapses and mediocre woodwind and string-playing can be heard. Zdeněk Mácal seems to have little sympathy with Cherkassky’s approach. Nonetheless, Cherkassky’s playing makes this a truly unique account of the Rhapsody, which I wouldn’t want to be without.

The Prokofiev and Stravinsky items are from 1951. The sound has presence and definition – although the upper mid-range and treble are rather metallic – and virtually no distortion. Those accustomed to the powerhouse performances of the Prokofiev by Horowitz and others may find Cherkassky rather quixotic. The first theme is jaunty and angular with myriad dynamic variations. He then slows down enormously for the second section, allows his tone to soften and emphasise the dance elements in the third section. And so it goes on. Each episode is brought vividly to life, without the structure being compromised. The Andante caloroso middle movement is beautifully phrased with a huge range of dynamic and tonal shading; while the finale is fast and very weighty.

Three Movements from Petrushka opens with a powerful account of ‘Danse russe. But Cherkassky never forgets – unlike so many – that this is a dance and the rhythms are suitably balletic. ‘Chez Petrouchka’ is delightfully sprung and elfin and every mood of the fiendishly difficult ‘La semaine grasse is caught. The first ppp appearance of the big tune is a moment of pure magic, with exquisite phrasing, gorgeous touch and balancing of the hands and Cherkassky then maintains a moderate tempo that allows him to fully characterise the puppets developing human characteristics and trials and tribulations. The three encores date from 1951 and 1953 and the sound is very similar to the other solo items, if a little fuller and less metallic in 1953. Each piece receives an enormously characterful performance to crown a release of exceptional pianism.

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