Piano Sonata in A minor, K310
Piano Sonata in B minor
Piano Sonata in E minor, Op.7
Burleske, Op. 261
Concert Paraphrase on Themes from Eugene Onegin by P. Tchaikovsky, Op.81
Trois morceaux, Op.2 – I: Etude in C sharp minor
Petrushka – Danse russe
Shura Cherkassky (piano)
Recorded at a recital on 2 June 1971, location unknown
Reviewed by: Rob Pennock
Reviewed: August 2013
CD No: FIRST HAND
RECORDS FHR 19
Duration: 82 minutes
This release derives from private tapes (held at the British Library) made for Shura Cherkassky. Remarkably, no-one seems to know where the recital was given. What is not at issue is that the programme is extraordinarily diverse, and the sound decidedly mediocre. According to the booklet note, a single microphone was placed on the platform, rather than above it, which means that the image is very close, and the transfer seems to have ironed out the dynamic range, so there is no true pianissimo anywhere. In addition the bass seems to have disappeared, and the treble and midrange are glacially tubular and piercing, which makes the image shallow and harsh; as a result it is difficult to appreciate Cherkassky’s mastery of tonal shading and pedal control, although the ear does adjust to some degree after a few minutes.
Cherkassky wasn’t known as a Mozartean, but gives a beautifully proportioned account of the A minor Sonata, keeping his quixotic, romantic temperament firmly in check. Coming from an age uncontaminated by authenticity, he wasn’t afraid to take the central Andante cantabile con espressione at a slow tempo, vary the speed and use effortless rubato. The finale is marked Presto, but Cherkassky turns it into a gentle, beguiling – and totally convincing – allegro, which is a marvellous example of a great re-creative artist completely re-thinking a piece of music.
Leaving aside the Liszt for the moment, Edvard Grieg’s Piano Sonata (which dates from 1865, when the composer was 22) is clearly influenced by the Hungarian composer, the first subject sounding like a variation on the second half of the opening theme of Liszt’s B minor Sonata. What follows is highly entertaining, without ever being truly inspired. The soulful slow movement is perhaps the best, but still falls short of melodic greatness. Nevertheless the work does deserve more than an occasional outing, and should suit any young firebrand wanting to make a name for themselves.
The first two encore-like pieces are novelties. Mana-Zucca (1885-1981) was a female American pianist, composer and singer, and judging by the opus number, pretty prolific. Her Burlesque (according to the frontispiece of the score) dates from 1965, combines a samba-like rhythm with an almost constant stream of triplets, is suitably virtuosic, like the Grieg should be heard be more often, and did make me want to hear more of her work, although the final glissando down to a bottom C doesn’t make the impact it should, due to the emaciated bass. The performance is dazzling. Much the same can be said of Paul Pabst’s Concert Paraphrase on Themes from Eugene Onegin, which is again very Lisztian, but lacks his creative genius and outrageous, joyous élan when making such ‘arrangements’. Nonetheless, the work is very engaging. Scriabin’s C sharp minor Etude (wrongly credited in FHR’s annotation) glides by, the soulful theme effortlessly sung (gorgeous rubato) and the Stravinsky is marvellously impish, with power in reserve; which brings us to the Liszt…
Timings often don’t tell you much, but 24 minutes (excluding applause), is horrendously fast for the B minor Sonata, yet the number of wrong notes is very small and the conception viscerally powerful. Indeed this is one of the few performances to rival that of Horowitz, live in 1950 (Sony), and Curzon in 1961 (BBC Legends). Despite the recording not capturing the soft opening, it is obvious that Cherkassky uses extensive dynamic and tonal variation. The first fortissimo outburst is jarring and no prisoners are taken as the works main and sub-themes are expounded, prior to the massive statement of the grandioso chorale that will signpost the work. In the first slow section Cherkassky constantly varies the tempo, weight of attack, and uses just about every known expressive aspect of piano technique to create a superbly alive, other-worldly atmosphere, which very few living pianists could hope to equal. Surprisingly the final lead up to the grand theme – which is marked presto, molto prestissimo – is almost elfin, and very bouncy. Unfortunately Cherkassky’s beautiful playing of the ultra-quiet, introspective coda is seriously marred by the sound and the audience immediately bursting into applause at the close.
Despite the reproduction, this is an important release, because of the repertoire and the great pianism it captures.