Wigmore Hall Live: Shura Cherkassky

0 of 5 stars

Lennox Berkeley
Preludes, Op.23 – Nos.5 & 6; Polka, Op.5
Ballade No.3 in A flat, Op.47
Nocturne in F sharp minor, Op.48/2
Mazurkas – in F sharp minor, Op.59/3; in G, Op.67/1
Sonata in E minor, HXVI:34
Piano Sonata No.3 in B flat
Hungarian Rhapsody No.2 in C sharp minor
Suite in A minor – Gavotte variée
The Seasons – October

Shura Cherkassky (piano)

Recorded at Wigmore Hall, London on 29 October 1993

Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: February 2007
Duration: 77 minutes

This concert took place shortly after Shura Cherkassky’s 84th-birthday and his characterful playing on this occasion proves as enthralling as when I first heard him a quarter-of-a-century earlier. Certain features of his interpretations are very recognisable. In particular, rising phrases or upward runs are often played with increasing tension yet the flow of the music is not disturbed. Amazingly, this quality is evident even in the Rameau – a composer with whom I had never before associated this pianist. These ‘Variations’ begin very coolly but are allowed to move more urgently as they proceed. There is a slight increase of tension from beginning to end of the more highly decorated examples.

By contrast Haydn is treated in a classical style – perhaps nearer to Beethoven’s classicism than Haydn’s – but this brief work, sunny in disposition despite its minor key is, from the outset, given a hint of high drama yet to come. Cherkassky’s style makes the composer’s points by alternately intensifying then relaxing the pressure. Other pianists contrast tempo to do this; Cherkassky manages to achieve it by using controlled flexibility without ever taking liberties with the speed. I also admire his way of not necessarily phrasing the music in the same way in repeated sections.

When performing music of the Romantic period, variation of tension necessitates full-scale rubato and Cherkassky is an absolute master of this art. In Chopin, rhythmic freedom is implied and here the phrasing has immense logic. The Ballade is far from strict in form and Cherkassky plays impulsively, phrasing the various melodies with great expression in an almost speech-like manner. The Mazurkas are another matter, however; there are gorgeous ‘Polish leanings’ on the strong rhythms but the music is always danceable.

Turning to the 20th-century, Cherkassky is more straightforward. The Hindemith Sonata has an opening movement that is far from taut in construction but the performance ameliorates this through lightness of touch. The following ‘Sehr lebhaft’, which is, in effect, a scherzo, has handfuls of notes, which here are made to dance with remarkable transparency. There is little to be done with the weighty third movement but to play it with gravity and the finale is a careful academic fugue – is this really Cherkassky’s type of music? It is certainly played with the utmost skill but the pianist’s sympathy for his own century is far more in evidence in Lennox Berkeley’s three brief lyrical pieces where contrasting dynamics and careful shading are cleverly achieved.

The famous Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody provides Cherkassky with the opportunity to display the finest of Romantic interpretation. Once again his amazing ability to achieve true rubato is always in evidence: this pianist always pays back the time that he borrows.. So often this episodic work can be treated to a sequence of suddenly differing tempos, but here the sense of flow is extraordinary. Fiendish runs and chord sequences are not dwelt upon; rather they are thrown off as mere ornamentation while the thematic progress of the work is properly attended to. After the introductory sequences the lead into the big theme with its multiple repetitions of three chords is welded together superbly. So often this can be an excuse for a sudden forward rush when the chords arrive, but it is a delight to hear this melody played without hurry and keeping it as part of the structure. Yes there is freedom of tempo, but the arching phrases are always part of forward-moving continuity. There may have been performances of this oft-played work that give more perfect representations of exactitude, but I cannot recall any that give so perceptive an understanding of the configuration of the music.

The gentle Tchaikovsky encore is enchanting. The audience does itself credit by delaying applause and even then it is thoughtful – just like the performance. I am not usually impressed by clapping being left in during recordings of live performances but here it has been edited with care at its every appearance – it never disturbs, is never too long and is always faded subtly.

This was a memorable recital, eminently well preserved in terms of audio, and is a worthy memento of the genius of Shura Cherkassky.

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