GHCD 2398/99 – Shura Cherkassky – The complete UK World Record Club Solo Recordings
Shura Cherkassky (piano)
Audiophile Audition – 27 March 2013
A double-disc collection from a most exciting pianist for certain.
Guild at last brings out the Australian World Record Club recordings 1958-1963 made by the great Romantic piano virtuoso Shura Cherkassky (1909-1995). Ever the idiosyncratic, searching musician, Cherkassky’s readings could hardly be called “definitive,” but they forever bristled with a spontaneous excitement and innate poetry not quite in step with anyone else. If Ralph Waldo Emerson’s concept of “self-reliance” could claim a musical analogy, it would lie in Cherkassky’s collective body of work. That independent, imperiously willful spirit has a perfect vehicle in Beethoven’s Prometheus or “Eroica” Variations, a testament to freedom-within-necessity, the theme’s rise from a ground bass to a triumph of the spirit ingrained in every measure of Cherkassky’s reading.
The Beethoven C Minor Sonata by Cherkassky will serve as well as any classic to represent his unique approach. The reading has depth and girth, certainly; but more than the fingers and peerless technique, there emanates a palpable instinct for the phrase in Beethoven, especially as the second, labyrinthine Adagio molto semplice e cantabile movement relies on one’s instinctive capacity for song. It is the essentially lyric element that Cherkassky emphasizes in late Beethoven – rather than the gravity of Beethoven’s counterpoint – that lightens the atmosphere and makes this otherwise imposing piece accessible. Many connoisseurs consider Vladimir Horowitz “the last Romantic pianist,” but would that then qualify Cherkassky as the penultimate Romantic pianist? Horowitz recorded the last movement of the B-flat Sonata of Muzio Clementi, but Cherkassky provides us an early experience of the whole work, with its dainty allusions to Mozart’s filigree from the Overture to the Magic Flute in the first movement. “Exquisite shades of aural poetry” has evolved as an epithet to designate the Cherkassky “style.” But Cherkassky himself dismissed “style” as a quality and rather attributed his communicative abilities to intuition. The breeziness of his scales and rocket figures attest to a complete security o vision, a shapeliness of line, and a buoyancy of spirit that make the Clementi gorgeous but not serious, to paraphrase the old Vienna maxim.
Regarding Vienna, Cherkassky applies a consistent pearly play to the Schubert grand Sonata in A Major, D. 959, among the composer’s last compositions from 1828. The loving conception and genial spirits of the interpretation – performed without heaviness, even in the clearly Bach-influenced minor section of the haunting Andantino – instills in us a sense of a “valediction forbidding mourning.” The fluid lines, the natural breaths, the taut arch that concedes its smiling melancholy within the context of a finely honed sense of structure, all contribute to a thoroughly idiomatic rendering of Schubert’s titanic document. At moments, the music-box sonority Cherkassky realizes subsumes whatever of the tragic muse resides in the figures under the smile of the Cheshire Cat.
The extensive Chopin group with Cherkassky begins with his briskly brilliant Fantasie-Impromptu from an HMV recording that was on a 45 rpm. Cherkassky does more than just chase tender rainbows in the central section; he creates them. The Chopin Barcarolle – a work Cherkassky played with equally poetic and liquid authority for the Swiss Tudor label – rings with Chopin’s emotionally transparent eddies and iconoclastic polyphony. We might venture the term “authoritative” to Cherkassky’s perennial traversals of Chopin’s F Minor Nocturne, played with that same disarming simplicity and sensitive candor that Ignaz Friedman brings to the companion Nocturne in E-flat, Op. 55, No. 2. Magic. The little posthumous Waltz in E Major enjoys a lithe schwung that belongs in every collector’s salon. For something like profundity from Cherkassky in Chopin, savor his muscularly virile approach to the Scherzo No. 3, whose potent declamations and sad, tolling bells bespeak an unquenchable and volatile Polish spirit.
When I purchased my own vinyl copy of the World Record Club T58, it was precisely to own Cherkassky’s version of Schumann’s infrequent Op. 111 Fantasy-Pieces. The surging passions of the first, the C Minor Fantasia, communicates the same swirling effect we hear in Traumeswirren of Op. 12, but less playful. The A-flat Andantino casts a simplicity of effect concomitant with a child’s bedtime story. Its own middle section recalls in ardent terms the perennial Arabeske in C. Lastly, the C Minor Con forza w ben marcato fantasy, a maerchen in martial colors that celebrates Schumann’s Florestan as an undaunted defender of the dream. The Tausig arrangement of The Smuggler, Op. 74, No. 10 releases Cherkassky the digital wizard, for whom leggierissimo and prestissimo are merely words.
Cherkassky matches Horowitz point for mysterious point in the Liszt reverie, his D-flat Consolation. The diaphanous nobility of line – rife with Liszt’s especial rhetorical fervor – permits not a moment’s sentimentality. The Grand Galop Chromatique receives a more reserved realization than its often vulgar gestures warrant, say under the hands of acolyte Georgy Cziffra. The A-flat Liebestraume projects a quiet luster without bathos. Cherkassky’s natural rubato and suave tonal palette prevent the rendition’s being prosaic. Deftness and delicacy permeate Cherkassky’s La Campanella, the repeated notes rarified Paganini. For pure power in this piece, I take Nojima. But for subtle coloration and lavish detail of execution, the Cherkassky proves unstoppable.