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Shura Cherkassky - The Complete UK World Record Club solo recordings
See end of review for track-listing
Shura Cherkassky (piano)
rec. 1950s-1960s, locations not specified. ADD
GUILD GHCD 2398/99 [79:32 + 78:46]

In October 1995, whilst on a visit to Paris, I heard that Shura Cherkassky was in town and scheduled to give a recital at the Salle Gaveau. I had never heard him in concert before, though I greatly admired his recordings. I got myself a ticket, went along and witnessed one of the most memorable piano recitals I had ever attended. It was to be the one and only time I would hear him live in concert. The programme included Beethoven and Chopin sonatas and at the end we feasted on a pot-pourri of those inimitable Cherkassky encores. However, the work on the printed programme that really dazzled me was the Liszt Waltz on Themes of Gounod’s Faust. Returning home, I immediately bought the Testament CD. After the concert, I had the good fortune to meet him, and he told me of some of the UK concerts he had planned for the following year. Sadly they were not to be, as he died at the end of December 1995.
What impressed me most about Cherkassky’s playing at that Paris concert was the beauty of sound and the kaleidoscopic palette of colour that he achieved. I had never heard that from a pianist in concert before, and I have never heard it since. So it was with great excitement that I approached this two-CD set, hoping to be reacquainted with some of that Cherkassky magic.
The recordings here are sourced from three World Record Club LPs, recorded between 1960 and 1963. As a bonus, two pieces, Chopin Fantaisie-Impromptu and Liszt Liebestraume, are taken from an HMV mono 45rpm disc, recorded in the late 1950s. The programme contains three substantial works by Beethoven and Schubert, plus some smaller items. Many people wrongly consider Cherkassky merely as a miniaturist. Stephen Hough, recalled in a 1991 interview that ‘to see him principally as a miniaturist excelling in encores and candied cameos, is to forget the towering architectural grasp of, say, his Liszt Sonata.’
Cherkassky only recorded two Beethoven piano sonatas, the E flat Op.27 No.1 and this last sonata Op.111. The ‘architectural grasp’ that I have just mentioned is very much in evidence here. There is great energy and drama in the first movement. However, it is in the Arietta that he achieves heights. It is a reading with great insight and integrity. There is an otherworldly quality and a sense of inevitability. The ‘Eroica’ Variations, are a great favorite of mine, ever since I saw the film of Glenn Gould doing them. Cherkassky’s performance is more measured and does not have the same visceral excitement as Gould’s.
D.959 in A major was the penultimate piano sonata Schubert composed in that last fruitful year of his life. I have the original World Record Club LP (T 58) which contains this work, together with the Schumann Op.111 and the Liszt Grand Galop. The re-mastering for this compilation has greatly enhanced the sound, the original LP was cramped and boxy. What I admire in this Schubert performance is Cherkassky’s dynamic spectrum. One marvels at his ability to achieve superb pianissimos, and his skill in colouring the sound with a judicious use of pedal. He never over-pedals and smudges the canvas. There is simplicity in the opening melody of the second movement, which has a wistful quality. However, he does sound a little tame in the stormy middle section; Brendel, to my mind, captures more of the terror and darkness here. The scherzo is nicely paced. Then in the finale the sun comes out.
The Clementi is delightful with a Mozartian flavour, though one I am not at all familiar with. The sparkling, pearl-like fingerwork in the finale is a real tour de force. I particularly like the Chopin selection. Cherkassky’s Chopin is poetic, eloquent and expressive, emphasizing the lyrical aspects of the music. There is a wonderful sense of line, and his control of dynamics, with those subito pianos, is breathtaking. To me, whilst he is the product of an age when individuality was nurtured, his playing never sounds mannered as some of Horowitz’s later playing did. In the Scherzo Op.39 as well as tension and drama throughout, there is beauty in the way he exquisitely voices the chords. The cascading notes which rain down are jewel-like.
In the Liszt group, Cherkassky brings into play his renowned cantabile to the Consolation and Liebestraume. Technical brilliance abounds in ‘La Campanella’ and the ‘Grand Galop’. The Schumann-Tausig is distinguished with its scintillating fingerwork. There is a plethora of poetry and passion in the Schumann Op. 111.
Devotees of the art of Shura Cherkassky will be overjoyed at the release of these expertly re-mastered recordings and their restoration to the catalogue. I must commend the insightful notes by Robert Matthew-Walker. Most of all, however, I found the magic I was looking for.
Stephen Greenbank
Masterwork Index: Beethoven sonata 32 ~~ Schubert sonata D959
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op.111 [28:38]
Fifteen Variations on a theme from Prometheus (‘Eroica’), Op.35 [25:51]
Muzio CLEMENTI (1752-1832)
Piano Sonata in B flat major, Op.47 No.2 [11:51]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Piano Sonata in A major, D.959
Frederick CHOPIN (1810-49)
Fantaisie-Impromptu in C sharp minor, Op.66 (posth.) [4:57]
Barcarolle in F sharp , Op.60 [9:01]
Nocturne in F minor, Op.55 No.1 [5:11]
Waltz in E major, Op. posth. [1:55]
Scherzo No.3 in C sharp minor, Op.39 [6:25]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-56)
Three Fantasiestücke, Op.111 [9:48]
Der Contrabandiste, Op.74 No.10 [1:43]
Franz LISZT (1811-86)
Consolation No. 3 in D flat [4:48]
Grande Galop Chromatique G.219 [3:56]
Liebestraume No.3 [4:19]
Grandes Etudes de Paganini No. 3 in G sharp minor “La Campanella’ [4:47]