Cherkassky 78s apr7316 1

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]

I count myself very fortunate to have had the privilege of hearing Shura Cherkassky once live in concert. It was in October 1995, and I was on holiday in Paris. The pianist was billed to give a recital at the Sale Gaveau, so I procured a ticket, went along and witnessed one of the most memorable piano recitals I have ever attended. After the concert, I had the good fortune to meet him and he told me of some of the UK concerts he had planned for the following year. Sadly they were not to be as he died at the end of December 1995. What impressed me most about Cherkassky’s playing at that concert was the beauty of sound and kaleidoscopic palette of colour he achieved. I had never heard that from a pianist in concert before, and I have never heard it since. I approached this new release from APR hoping to be reacquainted with some of that Cherkassky magic.

The complete 78-rpm recordings span the years 1923-1950. The earliest sides were set down in Camden, New Jersey for the Victor Talking Machine Company, and their dating, 1923-1928, places them at the end of the acoustic and the beginning of the electrical eras. Fast forward to 1946 and we have the US Vox Recordings. The pianist stayed with the company for only one year. Three years later Cherkassky was touring Scandanavia, and in October 1949 he recorded six solo piano works for the recently formed Swedish label Cupol. Finally, in 1950, Abbey Road Studios in London provided the venue for the pianist’s last batch of HMV 78s. In addition to this swathe of solo piano recordings, APR include Cherkassky’s one and only chamber music recording – the Rachmaninov Cello Sonata with cellist Marcel Hubert – a US Columbia inscription, recorded in two sessions over December 1934 and January 1935. Finally, there’s a recording of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in G major, regrettably in the brutalized edition by Alexander Siloti. This was a work Cherkassky championed throughout his career. This Concert Hall recording dates from 1946, and was made in Los Angeles.

The set opens with a skittish rendition of Beethoven’s Ecossaises WoO83, we are given acoustic and electrical versions. Similarly there are two versions of Mendelssohn’s Scherzo in E minor, where Cherkassky’s playing is mercurial and quicksilver. His own Prelude Pathetique, again recorded acoustically and electrically, is imbued with pathos and wistful regret. All the solo items on CD 1 date from the 1920s.

On CD 2 we are in the 1940s and the audio quality ratchets up a notch. A doleful mood is captured in October from Tchaikovsk’s The Seasons. Cherkassky achieves a glistening bell-like tone in Liadov’s A Musical Snuffbox. Darkness pervades the Scriabin Left Hand Prelude. Rachmaninov’s Polka de WR is every bit as capricious as the Horowitz versions, whilst Morton Gould’s Boogie Woogie Etude, a great favorite of the pianist, has swinging buoyancy and rhythmic acuity.

In Chopin and Liszt, we hear Cherkassky at his best. In Chopin’s E minor Nocturne he draws out the melodic strands with tenderness and affection, with light and shade permeating his playing. The F minor Fantasy blends melancholy with soaring elation, with dreamlike reflection emanating from the central section. There’s a truly heroic Polonaise in A flat, Op. 53 from Stockholm, where he wows the listener with some wonderfully crisp left-hand octaves. When he comes to Liszt, there are a selection of four Hungarian Rhapsodies. These are on the same plane virtuosically as György Cziffra’s. Although the approach is bold, there is much subtlety in the playing. They certainly don’t fall short of flamboyance. The Consolation No. 3 reveals the apex of his sensibility and poetic instincts.

Although the recording of the Rachmaninov Cello Sonata sounds rather recessed, a satisfactory balance has been struck between both players. Marcel Hubert commands a rich, warm tone. Though not particularly a Rachmaninov fan, I do find the Cello Sonata’s expressive tenderness and intensity compelling. In four movements and cast on a symphonic scale, the composer apportions the roles equally between both instruments. The performance here has a particularly alluring slow movement. Hubert and Cherkassky savour the long phrases and lyrical largesse in a highly romantic and intensely expressive rendition. The Tchaikovsky Second Piano Concerto featured high on Cherkassky’s list, he was devoted to the work. I don’t care for Alexander Siloti’s edition, apparently approved by the composer. We miss so much in the second movement with these cuts, and lose a lot of ravishing music. That said, Cherkassky’s scintillating and colourful playing wins the day. He invests much bravura and sweep in the outer movements, whilst lovingly sculpting the central Andante non troppo.

Some of the recordings here I was already familiar with, others it was a pleasure to make a first encounter. Nevertheless, Cherkassky followers will be delighted that these recordings have been brought together for the first time. Seth Winner’s unsparing efforts result in exemplary transfers, and I applaud the excellent, informative liner notes provided by Jonathan Summers. I would just like to add that I could find no information on the cellist Marcel Hubert. If any reader can supply me with any it would be most welcome.

Stephen Greenbank

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Previous review: Rob Challinor (October 2023)

Victor recordings 1923-1928
Ludwig van Beethoven
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
Polonaisein 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