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Shura Cherkassky (piano)
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor Op.16 [30:50]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Concerto for Piano, String Orchestra and Trumpet No. 1 in C minor, Op.35 [21:54]
Abram CHASINS (1903-1987)
Three Chinese Pieces [8:34]
Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Toccata (from Three Pieces) [2:04]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Circus Polka [3:47]
Ludwig Van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Bagatelle in G minor Op.119 No. 1 [2:14]
Shura Cherkassky (piano)
Harold Jackson (trumpet)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Herbert Menges
rec. Abbey Road Studios, London, November 1954 – April 1955 (Concertos); March 1956 (Chasins, Poulenc, Beethoven); 10 August 1955 (Stravinsky)
MEDICI MASTERS MM013-2 [70:04]

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.

The Shostakovich 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?

Ewan McCormick


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