Shura Cherkassky, Vol. I;  Gunter Herbig  (2-St Laurent Studio YSL T-1154)
Item# P1383
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Shura Cherkassky, Vol. I;  Gunter Herbig  (2-St Laurent Studio YSL T-1154)
P1383. SHURA CHERKASSKY: Sonata #3 in d (Handel); Fantasie in C (Schumann); The Four Ballades (Chopin) - Live Performance, 25 Nov., 1994, Philharmonic Hall, Warsaw (Cherkassky's final recital in Poland); w.Günter Herbig Cond. St Louis S.O.: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in a (Rachmaninoff) - Live Performance, 19 March, 1988. [The recital portion features Cherkassky at age 85, a remarkable 'desert island' performance!] (Canada) 2-St Laurent Studio YSL T-1154. Transfers by Yves St Laurent.


"Listening to eminent pianists, one typically reacts to them as either powerhouses or poets (the great ones, of course, display both qualities). Shura Cherkassky belongs to a rarer category, the pianist as personality. His style might seem arbitrary and at times idiosyncratic to an objective listener, but few pianophiles can remain objective about him. This fascinating recital, the last that Cherkassky gave in Poland, highlights the dictum that one man’s meat is another man’s poison. Collectors will already know if Cherkassky’s is a name they flee from or dote on. During his many years in London doting was by far the prevailing tone.

Cherkassky was born in Odessa in 1909, which makes him 85 at the time of this concert. He was known for playing far into old age before adoring English audiences. His technique remained amazingly intact, and more importantly, he never lost his charisma. The family was Jewish and fled to the U.S. very early to escape the Russian Revolution. Shura (short for Alexander) was a born performer who loved his audience right back, and in a work like the Schumann Fantasy in C, his heart-on-sleeve romanticism was defiantly backward-gazing.

He didn’t so much outlive the Golden Age as turn it into his shtick. The grand, sweeping phrases in his Schumann are spectacularly showy, but they are saved from vulgarity (if you are an admirer) by Cherkassky’s feeling for the repertoire. Each phrase is personally shaped. Everyone should have a listen, especially given the excellent stereo sound on this release from St. Laurent Studio, as a kind of nostalgic litmus test. If you sigh and fondly remember what it was like when a pianist had his listeners eating out of the palm of his hand (or hers), you probably haven’t had such a reaction since the final years of the equally adored Arthur Rubinstein.

The Handel Suite in d minor is played with dash and brio, miles away from the harpsichord or period style. Lushness of tone, a Cherkassky specialty, wouldn’t be tolerated in Baroque keyboard playing today, unless you love how he makes the music sound. Immediately one hears how freely Cherkassky approached rhythm and rubato, so this is Handel from the age of pterodactyls. Taking the same liberties in Schumann has an entirely different effect - you can imagine that the pianist is inspired by the moment much the way Schumann must have sounded. Of the Fantasy’s three movements, the last is dream-like and poetic. Modern pianists find it the hardest to wrap their imaginations around; Cherkassky makes it sound completely natural and unstudied.

He was a born Chopinist, and the four Ballades come off beautifully once you adapt to elderly Cherkassky’s loss of finesse. It’s not fatal by any means, but his touch is consistently too loud and lacking in refinement. Yet his innate style fits Chopin’s idiom like a silk glove. Such beauty of phrasing and complete ease are all but unknown today. Once you focus on that, the other issues become incidental. Cherkassky came from a heritage where the pianist was expected to dominate the composer in assertiveness, which is the key to enjoying Cherkassky in anything.

It was easy to tune in to his showmanship up to this point, but I lacked the will power to sustain a listen to the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini from St. Louis in 1988. Conductor Günter Herbig turns Rachmaninoff into a stout German composer, and the St. Louis Symphony is scrappy. Cherkassky finds no charm in the glittering piano part, and one suspects that his freedom with rhythms threw off the conductor and orchestra. The sound is good mono, with the piano clear and up front. But overall this reading covers no one in glory.

It’s for the Schumann and Chopin that aficionados will delight in this release, while for newcomers Cherkassky will bring either surprise or a gasp, perhaps not entirely of delight. I enjoyed myself thoroughly.”

- Huntley Dent, FANFARE

“Although Shura Cherkassky came from a belle époque of great piano playing, one where the cultivation of character and individuality was paramount, he could never be termed ‘the last of the great Romantics’ for, in a sense, he represented no other tradition than his own. Asked in 1991 to write a celebratory tribute for his 80th birthday, I found myself chasing quantities as elusive as quicksilver. Pin them down and they wriggled away with the pin. Cherkassky would have been delighted by my dilemma, rejoicing to the end in a life-affirming caprice and liberation that defied neat analysis or a tidy sense of category.

Cherkassky studied chiefly with Josef Hofmann, that master of the inner voice, texture, harmony and rhythm. From Hofmann he learnt that even an outwardly innocent score possesses secret nooks and crannies and, once the essential groundwork was done (and Cherkassky was among the most tireless workers in the business), the possibilities were virtually unlimited. Cherkassky used this priceless legacy to supreme advantage, demonstrating in the most positive and reassuring sense that you could never fully ‘know’ a work; that, like some multi-faceted jewel, it could be turned in the light to reveal a myriad colours and perspectives.

For long a London resident, Cherkassky gave concert after concert in his adopted city, red-letter days even in the teeming life of such a musical centre. His audiences were invariably capacity ones, liberally peppered with pianists who shook their heads in disbelief at that extraordinary blend of charm, elfin mischievousness and transcendental pianism. Single- minded and, indeed, obsessive, Cherkassky never taught (‘I could never teach, not for a second, not for a moment’) and successfully eluded invitations to appear on the juries of competitions, seeing them as venues of the standardisation he so instinctively disliked. It is no exaggeration to say that few pianists in the history of piano playing have been held in such awe and affection.”

- Bryce Morrison, THE INDEPENDENT, 29 Dec., 1995