Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor, Op.16
Piano Concerto No.1 in C minor, Op.35 [for piano, strings and trumpet]
Three Chinese Pieces
Trois Pièces – Toccata
Bagatelles, Op.119 – No.1 in G minor
Shura Cherkassky (piano)
Philharmonia Orchestra [Harold Jackson (trumpet)]
Herbert Menges [Prokofiev & Shostakovich]
All recorded at Abbey Road Studios, London – 15 & 16 November 1954 & 5 April 1955 (Prokofiev) and 16 November 1954 (Shostakovich); Stravinsky recorded on 10 August 1955, Chasins, Poulenc & Beethoven on 21 & 22 March 1956
Reviewed by: Rob Pennock
Reviewed: September 2007
CD No: MEDICI MASTERS
Duration: 70 minutes
Shura Cherkassky (1909-1995) was a member of that almost extinct species – the musical maverick. Born in Odessa, he was something of a prodigy, whose date of birth was fabricated to enhance his fame. Later he was taught by the great Josef Hofmann and developed a style that combined rich romanticism with an idiosyncratic approach towards touch, dynamic and rhythm. Unsurprisingly Cherkassky’s recitals concentrated on Romantic repertoire. Rather annoyingly, for pianist fanciers, he didn’t enter into a long-term relationship with any of the major record labels. These performances come from a 1950s’ dalliance with HMV. The concertos were originally issued on ALP 1349 and the shorter pieces on ALP 1527.
At the risk of stating the obvious, every concerto performance requires a dynamic, rhythmically alive orchestra and conductor. Cherkassky was paired with Herbert Menges, a man who offered that keyboard giant, Solomon, lumbering support on several of his HMV concerto LPs. True to form, on this disc, he completely fails to galvanise the Philharmonia Orchestra into offering little more than a plodding run-through of the score.
Cherkassky is also let down by the re-mastering. The Medici booklet doesn’t make clear what the sources were for these transfers but, having asked, I am informed that they are from EMI master tapes. EMI, who produced the HMV and Columbia labels, were not noted, until the early 1970s, for producing brilliant sound, but ALP 1349 has rather more top and definition than this Medici disc. The transfer engineer seems to have succumbed to the temptation to eliminate much of the hiss – which the listener quickly filters out – for modern digitally-attuned ears and has thereby lost much of the original’s life. A number of companies – including Testament and Dutton – have fallen into this trap and failed to realise that because analogue sound is superior to digital, any attempt to over-digitalise it will be counter-productive.
Cherkassky takes a very Romantic view of both works. Some modern performers tend to see the Prokofiev as an assault course and knock hell out of the piano, in an attempt to show that its difficulties mean nothing to them. Cherkassky came from a rather more sympathetic tradition, which extolled the use of singing tone and sensitive use of both the pedals and of rubato – does anyone actually teach this vital expressive technique today? – and the results, in the Prokofiev, are fascinating. The opening bars are dreamy with dynamic shading in the right hand, small ebbs of flow in the pacing and judicious use of the sustaining pedal. In the second subject, there is a clear sense of Bachian fugato, combined with expressive license. Throughout the movement, Cherkassky takes the Andantino-Allegretto marking seriously and doesn’t allow any empty, expressive posturing. By comparison the brief scherzo is angular and didactic at a relaxed tempo. In contrast the ‘Intermezzo’ is fast and very powerful and the finale has considerable power and Romantic sweep.
The Shostakovich fares less well. Once again the orchestral contribution is decidedly lacklustre and both Cherkassky and trumpeter Harold Jackson are rhythmically too laid back. More life and quicker tempos are needed throughout the work and the sparkling coda is lifeless and drab.
No such reservations apply to the encore pieces. Cherkassky invests every one with enormous panache and wit. These are great performances that have more character in a single bar than the average modern-day Wunderkind could find in a whole work. Once again though the sound is rather amorphous.
A difficult disc to sum up. If you want the concertos then, orchestrally, there are many superior performances out there. In terms of the soloists, the Shostakovich is completely surpassed by Dmitri Alexeev (Classics for Pleasure). But for the encores and Cherkassky’s contribution to the Prokofiev, I would want this disc but would prefer the LPs.