P1396. SHURA CHERKASSKY, w. Günter Herbig Cond. Chicago Orch.: Piano Concerto #2 in G (Tschaikowsky), Live Performance, 13 March, 1988, Orchestra Hall; w.Leonard Slatkin Cond. NYPO: Piano Concerto #4 in D (Rubinstein), Live Performance, 5 March, 1987, Philharmonic Hall, New York. (Canada) St Laurent Studio YSL T-1145. Transfers by Yves St Laurent.
“We should be grateful to producer Yves Saint Laurent and to FANFARE reviewer Gary Lemco who provided material for the release of these two incendiary performances by the inimitable Shura Cherkassky. Often described as one of the last old-school virtuosos, Cherkassky’s playing brings together the virtues of limpid lyricism, the ability to extract a wide range of color from the instrument, brilliant technique, and above all, a strong personality.
I find it interesting that Cherkassky is paired here with two conductors whose musical personalities are so different from his. I have a great deal of respect for both Günter Herbig and Leonard Slatkin (both were music directors of the Detroit Symphony, separated by a decade under Neeme Järvi), but unlike Cherkassky, Herbig and Slatkin are fairly straightforward interpreters. Neither is as likely to indulge in the kind of rhythmic freedom and improvisatory manner of Cherkassky’s playing. On the other hand, they are both skilled accompanists who manage to stay with the soloist while imposing a touch of structural unity to these performances.
Although Cherkassky’s discography, studio and live, include other recordings of the Tchaikovsky Second Piano Concerto and the Rubinstein Fourth, this release might well be my first choice. Cherkassky was generally better live than in the recording studio. Both concertos respond well to his flexible approach. The Tchaikovsky Second Concerto gets off to a slightly stiff start, but less than two minutes into the first movement Cherkassky seems to catch fire. He chooses, as he always did, Alexander Siloti’s truncated revision of the concerto, which is unfortunate, although it was generally the preferred version for many years. Siloti excised a huge chunk of the second movement and its prominent solo parts for violin and cello. Cherkassky’s volcanic playing in the extended cadenza in the first movement delivers beauty and thrills in equal measure. The second movement, although shorn of its extended chamber-like passages by Siloti, can still sound poetic in the right hands. Herbig is particularly sensitive to Cherkassky’s dynamic shading and supple phrasing. The finale gets off to a roaring start with a ‘catch me if you can’ feeling about it. Conductor and soloist urge each other on and end up creating the unique kind of excitement that is possible only in a live performance with musicians willing to take the risk of going for it.
Much the same description can be applied to the Rubinstein. The Fourth Piano Concerto has lived on the fringes of the standard repertoire for generations (faring much better than his other four). It is no surprise that Cherkassky programmed this work regularly, since it was a favorite of his teacher, Josef Hofmann. There are quite a few excellent studio recordings, including ones by Marc-André Hamelin, Raymond Lewenthal, and Cherkassky himself. The present performance is particularly riveting. One expects the flash and digital dexterity that Cherkassky demonstrates throughout, but the beautifully shaped hushed opening of the Andante is also very special. Slatkin is clearly caught up in the atmosphere Cherkassky is creating and matches it in his conducting.
In the spirit of full disclosure I should note that I was managing the Chicago Symphony at the time and I engaged both Herbig and Cherkassky for the concert that included the Tchaikovsky concerto. I do not believe that this disqualifies me from reviewing the performance, but the reader should be aware of the connection. Both recordings, taken from radio broadcasts, are well balanced and capture the richness of Cherkassky’s tone. As is the norm with St. Laurent Studio, there are no program notes; track listing and dates are provided.”
- Henry Fogel, FANFARE
“Tschaikovsky's Second Piano Concerto has always existed under a cloud. The composer himself was brought to believe that the violin and cello solos in the second movement (which turn the work momentarily into a triple concerto, and at the opening of the Andante must make an impatient pianist feel he is being kept waiting in the wings) were unacceptable to the public. Siloti, his pupil, made considerable cuts in his performances, and these excisions found their way into the posthumously published score.”
Ivan March, GRAMOPHONE, Aug., 1987
"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....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...."
- 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