Medici Masters continue
their imaginative investigations into the archives of EMI and
others with this reissue of Shura Cherkassky in a recital of
twentieth century piano works. The Prokofiev and Shostakovich
Concertos have, I think, been unavailable since their original
appearance. Cherkassky has as his collaborators the vintage
Philharmonia under the reliable support of Herbert Menges.
The rarely heard
Prokofiev Second Concerto was originally written in 1912-13
and first performed by the composer himself. Its reception was
hostile - “A Babel of insane sounds heaped on one another without
rhyme or reason” wrote one commentator - and the composer revised
the work in 1924 after his departure from Russia. This was,
incidentally, apparently done from memory, as the original manuscript
had gone missing. Despite this reworking, and performances by
the likes of Richter and Ashkenazy, the concerto has not established
a hold in the repertoire, so it was a bold move on the part
of Cherkassky to record the work in the 1950s.
Its structure is
unusual. Two long outer movements frame two shorter central
movements. The writing for the keyboard is less conventional
than that of the First Concerto, perhaps less immediately appealing
but at the same time more characteristic of the composer.
The opening movement
begins gently in parlando style - in fact Prokofiev marks the
opening theme “narrante” - but builds to a gigantic cadenza
to the demands of which Cherkassky, as we might expect, is fully
equal. The scherzo is a brief moto perpetuo – Cherkassky is
little short of astonishing in his ability to keep the motor
rhythms going while at the same time encompassing the light
and shade of Prokofiev’s dynamic markings. This is followed
by an Intermezzo which conjures up the heavy tread of Soviet-style
industry, an uncompromising movement powerfully realised by
soloist and orchestra. This is followed by the Allegro tempestuoso
finale which returns to the expansive mood of the first, and
which includes some very bold harmonic patterns, particularly
towards the end. Like the opening movement the finale contains
a virtuosic cadenza.
First Concerto - actually at the time of the recording the only
Piano Concerto by the composer - is a more familiar work and
Cherkassky displays much delicacy alternating with bravura when
required. There is no doubt that here, as in the Prokofiev,
he is completely inside the musical idiom. This recording has
been rather overshadowed by the composer’s own performances
with André Cluytens in 1958, but Cherkassky can more than hold
his own and in terms of technique rather leaves the composer
at the starting line. In particular the humour of the music
is effectively delineated alongside the more serious episodes.
After the ebullient opening Allegretto the Lento
opens with beautiful playing from the Philharmonia strings before
Cherkassky joins with sensitive playing, realising the music’s
melancholy aspects very effectively, as well as the more virtuoso
central section. Towards the end of the movement the trumpet
of Harold Jackson sings an eloquent postlude. The brief moderato
leads into the finale (Allegro con brio), one of Shostakovich’s
most infectious movements. Despite the high jinks of the finale,
however, Cherkassky overall reveals more depth in this work
that I have heard in some performances.
The fillers on this
CD are all slight works but imaginatively performed and all
display Cherkassky’s virtuosity, his skills in applying dynamic
gradations and his ability to think across long musical paragraphs.
The Chinese Pieces by the American Abram Chasins become in Cherkassky’s
hands more than mere chinoiserie. In the miniatures by
Poulenc, Stravinsky and Beethoven he is just as convincing.
Sound on these discs
is good for the period although there is naturally some background
hiss and a slightly constricted aural picture. It’s been good
to hear these performances from the archives. Now what about Cherkassky’s
recordings of the Grieg, Schumann and Tchaikovsky Concertos with
Sir Adrian Boult?