Sergey RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini op.43 [25:44] (1)
Sergey PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Piano Sonata no.7 in B flat major op.83 [19:31] (2)
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Three Scenes from Petrushka [17:45] (3)
Polka de W.R. [4:05] (4)
Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683-1764) arr. Leopold GODOWSKY (1870-1938)
Tambourin [2:57] (5)
Emmanuel CHABRIER (1841-1894)
Bourrée fantasque [5:34] (6)
Shura Cherkassky (piano) (1-6)
Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra/Zdenek Mácal (1)
rec. Saal 1, Funkhaus, Cologne (1-3), Villa Berg, Stuttgart (4-5), Munich (6), 17 April 1970 (1), 21 January 1951 (2-3), 3 March 1953 (4-5), 1951 (6)
ICA CLASSICS ICAC 5020 [76:28]

One of my most treasured memories is of a performance in Edinburgh of Rachmaninov’s Third Concerto by Shura Cherkassky with the Scottish National Orchestra under David Atherton. This would have been around 1974. Though his tone was not exactly “big” it had a vibrant, ringing quality which was never hard yet soared effortlessly over the orchestra in the final pages. Mention of this caused another musician to recall a similarly enthralling performance at around the same time in Holland, perhaps the greatest performance of the concerto he had ever heard.

The early 1970s, then seemed a great time for Cherkassky in Rachmaninov. They also witnessed some concerto recordings – Tchaikovsky, Grieg and Schumann – with the unlikely partnership of Sir Adrian Boult. These had a mixed reception. All the same, the discovery of this previously unissued Paganini Rhapsody seemed exciting. Especially since, as the informative notes by Alan Thorpe Albeson tell us, Cherkassky recorded the piece officially only once, in 1953 with the Philharmonia under Herbert Menges. This disc has never been issued on CD and I haven’t heard it.

Maybe you have to hear Cherkassky live to get his full flavour. In the end this didn’t turn out to be the revelation I had hoped. Of course there are fine things, but he is less mercurial than I expected and he pulls the music around excessively. Variation VI, for example, marked to be played at the same tempo as the previous one, suddenly goes slow. How naturally Benno Moiseiwitsch handles this, with a rallentando where it is marked but only there. I have his later version with Hugo Rignold, by the way. Cherkassky makes a succulent meal of the famous Variation XVIII, subjecting it to a dynamic scheme of his own. Again, one returns gratefully to Moiseiwitsch, not to speak of Rachmaninov himself. And what is the point of the sudden drop to piano in the middle of the first enunciation of the “Dies Irae” theme? I suppose you just shouldn’t follow a Cherkassky performance with the score, yet why should he have some special dispensation not granted to others? Following Moiseiwitsch with the score won’t cause anyone’s hackles to rise. At times Cherkassky is so systematic in his reversal of what is written that one even wonders if he actually believed that “forte” means “soft”, “piano” means “loud”, “crescendo” means “getting softer” and “diminuendo” means “getting louder”. But no, occasionally he does them right, so I suppose the answer is that he was just out to do his own thing. Possibly all this worked in a way if you were actually there. Equally possibly, his Rachmaninov Paganini wasn’t the equal of his Rachmaninov 3. Macal follows him well, so unsympathetic conducting doesn’t seem to have been the problem.

Given that the other recordings are much older, let me assure listeners that they sound extremely well for their age. Indeed, they don’t sound twenty years older than the Rachmaninov.

Albeson tells us that Cherkassky did not make an official recording of the Prokofiev, though it was in his repertoire. I must say, if I had been an A&R manager listening to the broadcast here I wouldn’t exactly have dashed hotfoot to sign up the performance. When we listen to Ignaz Friedman applying highly subjective rubato to Rubinstein’s Romance in E flat we accept this because it is part of the style of the music. To hear Cherkassky treating the slow movement of Prokofiev 7 like a salon trinket is bizarre to say the least. The first movement, too, falls apart as it alternates between headlong charge and shapeless drooling. Nowhere do we find that steely control, expressed in orchestral-style rhythms and hinting at deep emotion beneath, that can be heard when the likes of Richter play this composer. The one success is the finale, taken steadily but without eccentricities and with mounting excitement.

Cherkassky studied the Stravinsky with the composer. Maybe this explains why he observes the markings in the score more closely in this case. Here, at last, we have the Cherkassky of legend, with some truly magical textures and impish characterization. It is all so ear-inducing that one hardly notices the fact that it is often much slower than most orchestral performances one has heard. For all Cherkassky’s sleight of hand it plods here and there. Still, this is a performance that piano connoisseurs must hear. A later version of this work, from a live recital in London, was issued “officially”.

Cherkassky-watchers knew that, even when he was at rock-bottom worst, it was worth gritting your teeth and bearing it for the sake of the encores. And so it is here. The teasing rubato of the Rachmaninov Polka is the stuff of legends. Of the Rameau-Godowsky I can only say that, if you want to hear such an aberration, it couldn’t be better done. I just wish Cherkassky had lavished his colouristic gifts on Rameau’s charming original. The Chabrier is a scintillating display, and another piece that he apparently didn’t set down otherwise. Certain jabbing sforzatos come out with a hard metallic tone. However, in the light of my opening memories of Cherkassky’s ringing but never hard tone, I’m inclined to think he was applying too much pressure on the microphones rather than on the piano itself.

Maybe this disc should never have been reviewed. For Cherkassky-ites it will be enough to know that it exists. They will want to decide for themselves how much of the best Cherkassky is here. The only useful thing I can tell them is that the recordings themselves are good. If you’re looking for the best version available of any of the pieces here, in the case of the last three brief tracks this could well be it. Over to you.

Christopher Howell

The Rachmaninov Polka is the stuff of legends. But the rest?