MediciArts MMO13-2, 70:04 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Vintage inscriptions from Ukrainian virtuoso Shuira Cherkassky (1909-1995), the thrill of it all for me being my own memories of the Prokofiev G Minor Concerto (15-16 November 1954 and 5 April 1955), which I saw and heard Cherkassky play at Carnegie Hall under Josef Krips. Here, Cherkasssky has the fleet, energized accompaniment of Herbert Menges (1902-1972), who, so far as I know, has never enjoyed a disc devoted to his solo conducting. Rather, Menges lives on his repute in work with musicians like Cherkassky, Hess, and Solomon; the mention of Menges makes me wish MediciArts would resuscitate Cherkassky’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini from the Bluebird label (LBC 1066).
The Prokofiev is all steel fingers, and both the huge first movement cadenza and the wicked Scherzo punch, swagger, peck and persuade the keyboard to bravura figures articulated elastically. The Intermezzo, with its wildly eccentric metrics and percussive effects, whips Cherkassky and the Philharmonia wind, brass, and battery section into a cacophonous brew worthy of a Russian Macbeth. A weird march, it bangs on our heads in irreverent punctuations, quite mocking and uncivilized. All this beautifully controlled chaos tumbles into breathless place in the Finale: Allegro tempestoso, where the enfants terribles on both sides of the score can revel in the passing grotesqueries. Despite the music’s morbid affects, Cherkassky imbues all sorts of loving touches, including more than one grace note and appoggiatura of surpassing elegance. Gorgeous devilry!
The Shostakovich Concerto No. 1 (16 November 1954) is savage spitballs and icicles, brilliant in all parts, but especially in the frenzied dialogues between Cherkassky and trumpet Harold Jackson. Sparkling runs and wicked, percussive riffs alternate lyrical outpourings with bold, saucy strokes and motor propulsion. Something of the Parisian boulevardier insinuates itself into the passages, a touch of Poulenc and Ibert. The Largo opens like a Satie Gymnopedie, then sings a plaintive song devoid of guile. The music blazes into solar prominences momentarily, only to fall back into hazy melancholy, the trumpet’s playing a sad tune that might have been written by Alex North. The Moderato section passes swiftly and leads into the circus pyrotechnics between Cherkassky and Jackson, with Cherkassky’s part conjuring up visions of the Cheshire Cat or Chico Marx.
Three Chinese Pieces (1926) by Abram Chasins became a Cherkassky staple, especially as the composer and performer shared time and teachers at Curtis Institute. Chasins gained prominence as a musical commentator at WQXR-FM and as a recitalist with his wife, Constance Keene. The opening piece, “A Shanghai Tragedy,” might serve for an atmospheric accompaniment to a movie by Josef von Sternberg. “Flirtation in a Chinese Garden” is Chasins trying to imitate Ketelby. A pentatonic parody suffuses “Rush Hour in Hong Kong,” a hectic etude that has Cherkassky (21-22 March 1956) throwing shimmering sparks in the manner of Liszt’s Grand Galop. The Poulenc Toccata (1928) becomes quite thunderous under Cherkassky, who keeps its nervous, polyphonic filigree moving as a bit of tender melody tries to rear its pretty head. The Stravinsky Circus Polka (10 August 1955) scampers along, mocking the gait of daintified elephants, here trying to trip the light fantastic according to an irreverent version of Schubert’s Marche Militaire. Finally, a rare moment of Beethoven from Cherkassky, the first of the Op. 119 Bagatelles, suavely, graciously rendered, a touch of insouciance tempered by harmonic and dynamic explosiveness that lie just below the surface.
— Gary Lemco