Shura Cherkassky piano Complete Recordings APR

Shura Cherkassky (piano)
The Complete 78-rpm Recordings 1923-1950
Marcel Hubert (cello)
Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra/Jacques Rachmilovich
rec. 1923-1950
APR 7316 [3 CDs 195]

The term Last of the Romantics has been applied to many pianists but though I don’t altogether agree with the term – old style pianism can still be found after all – Shura Cherkassky can certainly lay claim to it. His concert career lasted from 1923 until his death in 1995 and his recording career was only short of that by a few months reaching from the 78rpm era right through to Compact Discs; quite a legacy

Cherkassky was born in Odessa to a Russian language teacher come amateur violinist father and pianist mother who had been a pupil of Annette Essipov. It was his mother who gave him his first lessons and he was playing Beethoven’s Sonata op.31 no.2 and Schubert impromptus in concert aged eight. He passed the entrance exams for the Odessa Conservatory but the Russian revolution intervened and the family moved to America. The young Shura soon sparked interest and in 1923/24 he gave recitals, concerto performances and a performance for the President as well as making his first recordings; by August 1925 he had recorded eight sides for Victor with four electric versions following in 1928. He met the great Josef Hofmann who arranged for a scholarship that led to eleven years refining his already impressive craft under Hofmann’s tutelage. The 1930s brought tours that extended to Russia, Australia and the far east as well as his single Columbia disc which turned out to be his only chamber music recording – the Rachmaninov Sonata with Marcel Hubert. Post war performances of Tchaikowsky’s G major piano concerto under Stokowski and Malko led to his first recording of the work with a somewhat less stellar orchestra and conductor and during the same period he recorded a Vox set of Piano Music of Russian Masters. These have previously appeared on Pearl and Ivory Classics with the latter set including works such as the Brahms F minor Sonata which were destined for 78 release but ultimately appeared on LP and so outside the remit of this set. He began touring again and on one Scandinavian tour in 1949 he took the opportunity to record three discs for Swedish label Cupol who were then just two years old. By now he was concentrating his playing in Europe and the UK and after a 22 year gap – 21 if you count some unreleased disc from 1929 – he recorded for HMV, seven works that round off this set. After a spell in the South of France he moved to London and lived there, at the White House Hotel recording and giving many concerts until his death in 1995. Aside from the labels represented here Cherkassky went on to record from DG, Nimbus, Decca and l’Oiseau Lyre – I received his Kaleidoscope LP as a present and remember playing it into the ground cherishing the sublime playing. Live recitals have proved popular and there have been many CD releases from the likes of Meloclassic, Ermitage, Orfeo, First Hand records and Ivory Classics to name but a few.

Many of the recordings here have appeared before but it is a treat to have them collected here together for the first time in wonderful sound and with such clear documentation. One thing that is very noticeable is that there is no lack of maturity in the playing of the teenager in 1923 that would set these recordings apart from the later ones; admittedly he only plays short encore works but they are technically stunning and full of character. The Ecossaises are playful as they are assured and there is nobility and gorgeous singing tone in the Mendelssohn Prelude, a work he continued playing in later life – as he did several of these works. The first bars of the Mendelssohn scherzo are played almost as an introduction before Cherkassky sprints off in sparkling fashion though the Hunting song, while technically perfect, sounds a little straightlaced. Inner voices, not usually stressed, in the Chopin Waltz in E minor presage his time with Josef Hofmann who often found these unmarked voice parts in his playing and we are treated to relative rarities in the form of Cherkassky’s own Prélude Pathetique, wonderfully precocious and romantic and Mana-Zucca’s Rachmaninov-inspired prelude op.73, sumptuous and tastefully played considering the potential for over indulgence in the writing. Mana-Zucca (born Gussie Zuckermann) studied at various times with Leopold Godowsky, Alexander Lambert and Joseph Weiss and composed prolifically; in later years Cherkassky often played her Zouaves Drill as an encore as well as her Fugato Humoresque and Burleske. The surface noise of these early discs is relatively heavy though not annoyingly so and there is no lack of detail. The four items recorded electrically in May and April 1928, repertoire repeated from the earlier sessions, have a shade more depth to the piano sound noticeably in the Mendelssohn Prelude. 

The 1935 Rachmaninov Cello Sonata, in its first recording, is not so immediate as the earlier recordings though the sound is on the whole pretty satisfactory with Rachmaninov’s melodic invention very much to the fore from both pianist and cellist. This is a very vivid and exciting performance and my only issue would be the lack of clarity in the recording; broad strokes stand out clearly but there is a muddiness to many of the fine details that appears to stem from the original recording. I am impressed by Hubert’s playing, intense and rich, balanced perfectly with Cherkassky’s grand playing; the otherwise useful booklet gives no information about Hubert and the internet is not much more help. Were they chamber partners at this time? More Russian music followed in his next recording over a decade later with the Vox Russian disc that spanned repertoire from Glinka to Shostakovich. Cherkassky is the ideal performer here, vivacious, extrovert and dynamic; he turns Glinka’s little known tarantelle into a high-stepping dance which sounds more than capable of driving its dancers into a frenzy notwithstanding the unusual choice of duple rather than triple time. Another rarity is the charming waltz by Vladimir Rebikov from his Christmas Tree suite; well suited to Cherkassky who was never lacking in the charm department; this would sit happily alongside any of Tchaikowsky’s waltzes and certainly sounds wonderful introducing Tchaikowsky’s touching October and Skriabin’s early prelude for the left hand. Medtner, rare on discs at the time other than in Medtner’s own recordings, makes an appearance with one of the Skazki in playing that makes one wish he had recorded more. In these and the more extrovert, virtuosic repertoire Cherkassky is at the top of his game – not to suggest that he wasn’t in the early recordings. Effortless playing in all respects in repertoire that Cherkassky was at home in, as he was in the four Liszt Rhapsodies that followed a year later. Completing disc two are the six works that he recorded for Cupol in 1949 and probably the best sounding discs so far; its a chance to hear him in the Rachmaninov Polka de WR that so impressed audiences in his 1923 recitals and was recorded but remained unpublished; Cherkassky is obviously enjoying himself and his playfulness is evident. The Chopin Polonaise is relatively restrained compared to some versions but Cherkassky impresses with the middle octaves which almost imperceptibly speed up creating a wonderful effect. His first venture into French music, Poulenc’s toccata, is silky and ebullient by turns and he completed this recording session with two works by Morton Gould. The Boogie Woogie Etude became a favourite encore of his but I have not heard the Prelude and Toccata before. The brief prelude is somewhat blues inspired and the toccata is from the same stable as the etude; personally I prefer the electrifying toccata though never caught on in the same way the etude did. All the items on disc two previously appeared on a Pavilion Records release (GEM0138) also transferred by Seth Winner and he has improved the sound here, particularly in the Liszt Rhapsodies. That disc also included a 1946 broadcast of the final two movements of Tchaikowsky’s G major Concerto that includes some quite spectacular playing. The same can be said of the Concert Hall version of the complete concerto included here; Cherkassky chose the truncated version by Alexander Siloti, as he did in his later recordings and also seems to make some other cuts in the cadenza, with bars here and there missing, rather distracting when you think you know what’s going to come next. Seth Winner has done a great job with the sound and there are certainly no qualms about the soloist’s performance. The live version is the one to listen to for the superior cello and violin solos in the slow movement but the orchestral playing here is acceptable even if they come off the rails a little in the finale – Cherkassky’s fire obviously had them rattled and it occasionally sounds as if he would like to move things along more, despite the already fast tempo. There is some delicious pianissimo playing, as impressive as the breathtaking virtuosity and I’m grateful to APR for bringing this back into the catalogue.

The set concludes with the 1950 HMV recordings. The Chopin pieces include one the most beautiful E minor Nocturnes that I have heard and overall Cherkassky seems to be paying special attention to beauty of tone and line; as in the A flat Polonaise from the previous year he seems to be avoiding excess and there is nothing flamboyant or extravagant about his interpretations. Perhaps the most extrovert playing here is the Saint-Saëns Prélude and Fugue from his first set of études, the prélude’s constant repeated triplets light and buoyant and the fugue sprightly with some spectacular octave work. The set closes with a treasure, Chaminade’s delicate Autrefois which Cherkassky returned to for his Kaleidoscope LP. The central section with its echoes of clavecin writing is sparkling but it is the hushed playing in the hauntingly nostalgic outer sections and the final pianissimo chords that remain in the memory.

It is a joy to have all these recordings available together. Cherkassky was a supremely gifted and communicative pianist and there is something to admire in every piece in this collection.

Rob Challinor

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Victor recordings 1923-1928
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Ecossaises WoO83 (2 versions)
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1947)
Prelude in E minor from Prelude and Fugue Op.35 No.1 (2 versions)
Scherzo in E minor Op.16 No.2 (2 versions)
Hunting Song Op.19 No.3 
Shura Cherkassky (1909-1995)
Prélude Pathetique (2 versions)
Fréderic Chopin (1810-1849)
Waltz in E minor Op.posth
Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) arr. Leopold Godowsky (1870-1938)
Tamborin No.6 from Renaissance book 1
Mana-Zucca (1885-1981)
Prelude Op.73

Columbia recording 1934-35
Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943)
Cello Sonata Op.19

US Vox recordings 1946-47
Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857)
Tarantelle in A minor
Vladimir Rebikov (1866-1920)
Waltz from Christmas Tree Op.21
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
October from the Seasons Op.37b No.10
Anatoly Liadov (1855-1914)
A musical Snuffbox Op.32
Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915)
Prelude in C sharp minor for the left hand Op.9 No.1
Nikolai Medtner (1879-1951)
Skazka Op.34 No.2
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)
Suggestion Diabolique Op.4 No.4
Aram Khatchaturian (1903-1978)
Toccata in E flat minor
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)
Preludes Op.34 Nos.10 and 5
Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
Hungarian Rhapsodies Nos.5, 6, 11 and 15 from S.244

Swedish Cupol recordings 1949
Franz Liszt
Gnomenreigen S.145 No.2
Fréderic Chopin
Polonaise in A flat major Op.53
Franz Behr (1837-1898) arr. Sergei Rachmaninov
Polka de W.R
Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)
Toccata No.3 from Trois piéces pour piano
Morton Gould (1913-1996)
Prelude and Toccata
Boogie Woogie Etude

Concert Hall recording 1946
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Piano Concerto No.2 in G major Op.44

HMV recordings 1950
Fréderic Chopin
Nocturne in E minor Op.72 No.1
Mazurka in D major Op.33 No.2
Etude in C sharp minor Op.10 No.4
Fantasy In F minor Op.49
Camile Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)
Prélude and Fugue in F minor, No.3 from 6 Études Op.52
Franz Liszt
Consolation No.3 in D flat major S.172 No.3
Cécile Chaminade (1857-1944)
Autrefois No.4 from Piéces humoristiques Op.87