They say itís a long, long time from May to December.
The Rachmaninov, recorded in the latter month, has the traditional British
bronchitic audience accompanying it in every phase, whereas the Prokofiev,
recorded in May has no such distractions. Itís also a long, long time
from 1957 to 1991, and itís very revealing to observe the huge progress
the BBC engineers had made during this period.
Cherkassky was a truly remarkable performer, a one-off
who turned every concert into a genuine live event in which anything
could happen. His compact, simian frame would bounce high off the piano
stool at emphatic moments, and large globules of sweat would fly in
all directions, causing orchestra members to contemplate employing judiciously
placed umbrellas. His approach to concert-giving was, of course, a high-risk
one, which the Rachmaninov demonstrates graphically. I think the noisy
audience may actually have played a part here; itís as if their constant
coughing and spluttering - which I have to say is excessive, and had
me wondering uncharitably why people with such terrible infections donít
stay tucked up in bed Ė made Cherkassky exaggerate the fluctuations
of dynamics and tempi, giving the whole thing a fidgety, fussy character
which is at odds with the nature of the concerto. And the finale comes
apart quite spectacularly in two places (acknowledged in the booklet
notes) Ė Track 3 around 5:35 and again around 13:34 - while ensemble
elsewhere is often pretty chaotic.
The Prokofiev is a completely different matter. The
standard of the accompaniment is very high, and the performance captures
well the powerful, brooding nature of this fine work. It is monumentally
difficult for the soloist, and I can live with the splashy errors which
arise here and there, particularly in the first movement. This is Ďliveí,
and letís remember that Cherkassky was, incredibly, 81 years old when
the performance was given. The energy which he pours into this performance
is stunning, and the climax of the huge first movement cadenza is overwhelming,
leading to a magnificent entry of the orchestra with the opening theme
Ė Track 4, around 9:45.
The whirlwind second movement, over almost before it
has started, gets the true virtuoso treatment, while the grotesqueries
of the Intermezzo are brought out superbly. This music looks
forward to the heavy accents of the Montagues and Capulets in
Romeo and Juliet, and that kind of heaviness persists in passages
of the finale. Like the other movements, this is wonderfully characterised,
soloist and orchestra getting right inside the weird imagination expressed
in the music. The recording lets us hear the monstrous belchings of
the tuba at (Track 7) 1:20, and this instrument, of which Prokofiev
was so inordinately fond, keeps cropping up throughout the movement.
This is a titanic performance of the Prokofiev, not
perfect in every detail, but totally worth hearing. It repays the listener,
perhaps, for persisting through the comparatively frustrating and, to
me at any rate, unsatisfactory version of the Rachmaninov. In that sense,
the BBC are to be thanked and congratulated for this issue which accurately
reflects both the highs and the lows of a great performing artist.