Bach, transcribed Busoni
Partita in D minor for unaccompanied violin, BWV1004 – Chaconne
Bagatelles, Op.119 – No.1 in G minor
Impromptu in A flat, D899/4
Mazurka in F minor, Op.7/3; Waltz in E flat, Op.18 (Grande valse brillante); Nocturne in D flat, Op.27/2; Ballade in F, Op.38; Ballade in A flat, Op.47 [two versions]
Hungarian Rhapsody No.13 in A minor
Gounod, transcribed Liszt
Faust – Waltz
Concerto symphonique No.4 – Scherzo
Saint-Saëns, transcribed Godowsky
The Carnival of the Animals – The Swan
A Musical Snuffbox, Op.32
Preludes, Op.23 – No.2 in B flat; No.5 in G minor
Three Preludes [two versions]
Trois pièces – Toccata
Three Chinese Pieces
Shura Cherkassky (piano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sir Malcolm Sargent [Litolff]
Recorded in London – solo items in 1956 & 1958 in Abbey Road Studio No.3; Litolff recorded in 1958 in Kingsway Hall
Reviewed by: Rob Pennock
Reviewed: May 2009
CD No: FIRST HAND RECORDS
FHR04 (2 CDs)
Duration: 1 hour 59 minutes
Shura Cherkassky was born in Odessa in 1909. Like many others he fled from what became Soviet Russia and settled in the USA. For many years he studied with Josef Hoffman and was an inveterate traveller, giving recitals all over the world until two months before his death in 1995. During the 1950s he made a series of recordings for the HMV label, the stereo ones of which form the basis of these discs. Some of them were first issued in mono on either LP or EP and all the tracks here appear for the first time in stereo on compact disc.
Cherkassky had a reputation for being quixotic, a real old-world pianist and these performances are about as far from the boring facelessness of most the pianists born in the last fifty years, as you can get.
Busoni’s arrangement of Bach Chaconne (from the D minor Partita for unaccompanied violin) seems to bring out the best in every performer. Cherkassky is magnificent! From the first bar each of the variations is vividly characterised, the rhythms dance and sometimes become jazz-like. The sudden change to Adagio for the central section is perfectly judged, as well as ethereally beautiful, and the final pages are massively triumphant. The classical period is not much associated with Cherkassky and yet in the Beethoven every mood is perfectly – if very romantically – captured and the Schubert is fleet and full of totally convincing fluctuations of tempo – the work really lives and breathes.
Which brings us to Chopin and some very, very great performances. Given the generation that Cherkassky belonged to you take for granted his command of every expressive device, including mellifluous rubato. But in no age can such insight and seemingly endless re-invention of these masterworks be so taken for granted. The Mazurka is beguilingly phrased with subtle rhythmic variation; the Waltz bounces along with crisp and occasionally, almost flippant fingerwork and pointing, and the Nocturne is the audio equivalent to crushed velvet: this really is pure poetry.
At the start of the F major Ballade the mood of the Nocturne seems to continue, with a measured tempo, quiet introspection and a sense of underlying tension. When the music explodes the command is absolute. In the A flat Ballade there is a sense of authoritative understatement, beautiful syncopation in the second section and every phrase sounds spontaneously fresh and yet everything coheres. At the end of the second disc there is an alternative performance of the Third Ballade, from the same session, which is marginally slower and perhaps lacks the coherence of the ‘official’ one. However, First Hand producers should have placed these two performances together to allow side-by-side comparison.
As you would expect the Liszt pieces are a tour de force of hugely entertaining virtuosity. The highlight though has to be the transcription of the ‘Waltz’ from “Faust”. Forget elegant couples and think athletic pantomime-horse and you will get the picture! This really is wonderful and entirely intentional – Cherkassky was a great, thinking, pianist who knew exactly what he was doing.
The second disc offers a huge range of compositional styles. It opens with the once-very-popular Litolff Scherzo, which receives a dynamite performance, with Malcolm Sargent doing what he did best – accompanying with attack and precision. Godowsky’s Saint-Saëns arrangement and the piece by Liadov receive well-nigh-perfect performances; both are real delights. Rachmaninov’s G minor Prelude is despatched with real power and a very soulful central section, but the B flat example brings the only disappointing performance, tired and laboured. Gershwin’s great Preludes are also presented in two different versions, the ‘approved’ one preferable with faster tempos in the outer pieces bringing greater life and articulation and the slower tempo in the central piece even greater lyricism. Abram Chasins’s Chinese Pieces are ghastly as music – with sad attempts at ‘local colour’ – but you won’t hear them played better, whereas the Chinese influences in Poulenc’s marvellous Toccata are rather more effective and receive a powerhouse performance.
Sound-wise everything is fine regarding the re-mastering – although the mono reproduction was very good and the orchestra in the Litolff had greater warmth and presence – and the piano sound is superior to any direct digital recording. This is a very valuable addition to the piano catalogue.