Cherkassky’s appearances in Germany in the 1950s confirm his status as a master colorist.
Shura Cherkassky, piano = HAYDN: Piano Sonata No. 34 in e minor; CHOPIN: Ballade No. 1 in g minor, Op. 23; Impromptu No. 3 in G-flat Major, Op. 51; Fantasie-Impromptu in c-sharp minor, Op. 66; Scherzo No. 1 in b minor, Op. 20; CHASINS: 3 Chinese Pieces, Op. 5; POULENC: Toccata from Trois Pieces; RACHMANINOV: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 – Shura Cherkassky, p./ Sym. of the SW German Radio/ Hans Mueller-Kray – MeloClassic MC 1033, 74:55 [www.meloclassic.com] *****:
The rarified art of pianist Shura Cherkassky (1909-1995) has another important document in these 1952-1958 recital pieces and the Rachmaninov Rhapsody from, respectively, Bremen and Southwest German Radio. From the outset (27 February 1958), with the e minor Haydn Sonata (1778), Cherkassky presents a wide sonic palette, though understated, that reveals Haydn’s demands – Alberti bass figures, legato double-notes, syncopated double-notes, and a constant juxtaposition of major and minor modalities – that unfold in a manner that combines much of Scarlatti with the stile brise of the Bach sons. Besides the use of portato arpeggios in the first movement, the striking Adagio suggests florid, operatic runs in coloratura style, an independent treble line over a strict bass. The last movement, 2/4, asks for Molto vivace, with a curious demand for innocentemente coloration, perhaps diminishing the harshness of the accents for a more lyrical effect. Before too long, we realize Haydn has concocted an intricate set of double variations whose earthy energy has Cherkassky’s skipping the light fantastic.
A four-piece Chopin group follows, opening with a highly personalized g minor Ballade No. 1, rife with the pianist’s idiosyncratic rubato. Cherkassky’s bass line proves as expressive in its subtle, Neapolitan harmonies as the top lines flexibly expound the Mickiewicz narrative. The lightness and clarity he can bring to even thickly chromatic textures keeps us dramatically and lyrically alert. The rhythmic intricacies of the G-flat Major impromptu unfold in a pearly, luxuriously delicate flow whose phrase-endings provide a natural coda to the periods. Both brilliant articulation and subtle colors mark the familiar Fantasie-Impromptu, whose bass punctuations add a fresh perspective to the outer sections. The lyrical innocence of the middle aria makes a special occasion of this rendition. The fierce gallop that opens the darkly dramatic b minor Scherzo soon exploits fermatas and luftpausen enough to warrant our repeated hearings of this reading. Occasionally breathless – but far from shapeless – the outer sections combine tragic dignity with poignant intimacy. The middle section, a Polish noel, plays like a heartbeat from another world.
Cherkassky turns (27 February 1958) to an American war-horse, the Three Chinese Pieces (1926) of Abram Chasins. The first piece, A Shanghai Tragedy, capitalizes on percussive bell-tones and pentatonic and chromatic scales. The pageant dies away in gossamer dynamics from Cherkassky. The Flirtation in a Chinese Garden proffers an exotic sound from the white keys of the piano. The Rush Hour in Hong Kong provides a toccata at a blistering pace, Chasins’ answer to Rimsky-Korsakov’s bumble bee. In the same “oriental” mode, the Poulenc Toccata (1 February 1952) explodes in its wry manner, with its moment of bitter-sweet boulevardier sensibility.
Cherkassky made one commercial recording of the 1934 Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini by Rachmaninov, with Herbert Menges for EMI. There are, however, a number of live broadcast performances, each with its exquisite individualism. For years, I have been partial to such a collaboration with Gunter Herbig from St. Louis. Here, 23 March 1954, with gifted conductor Hans Mueller-Kray (1908-1969), the music evolves seamlessly but with a full array of explosive colors and ardent lyricism. Mueller-Kray has his ensemble alert to the demonic aspects of the score, certainly asserting that Paganini sold his soul to the Devil. Highly recommended on all counts!