Shura Cherkassky was born in Odessa in 1909, but his family soon resettled in Baltimore, where he made a sensational debut at the age of twelve. He soon became a student of Josef Hoffman, one of the most highly regarded pianists of the age, with whom he studied on and off for twelve years. His career sputtered in the United States, but flourished in Europe, especially after the Second World War. Eventually he settled in London, and continued a hectic schedule until well into his 80's. He died in 1995 a month after giving his last recital. Like conductor Sergiu Celibidache, his reputation is built, at least in part, on what he didn't do: make recordings. Though hardly as doctrinaire as Celibidache, Cherkassky's recorded legacy was limited until (in his 80's) he committed a large part of his repertory to disc for Nimbus.
As the most long-lived student of Hoffman, Cherkassky was widely regarded as the last of the "Golden Age" pianists, "a throwback to a bygone era," and this has made him a controversial, polarizing figure. For devotees of "Golden Age" practice, Cherkassky performed with an unbridled romanticism, an individuality and freedom, that the more tightly buttoned, literal-minded pianists of the modern school were incapable of. For scholars of the modern approach, Cherkassky consistently overemphasized the left hand teasing out "inner voices" the composer never meant us to hear, thereby distorting, sometimes beyond recognition, the scores he was interpreting. You've no doubt heard the joke: "At his recital last night, X played Brahms. Brahms lost." In every version of the joke I've heard, X is always a "Golden Age" pianist, violinist, or conductor.
Though there's no getting around the fact that Cherkassky was at heart a true Romantic, his reputation as a retrograde performer is somewhat exaggerated. For one thing, no other Golden Age pianist I know played so much modern music, or was so conscientious at keeping abreast of recent developments. The Berg Sonata was a staple of his repertory, and over the course of his long career, he became an enthusiastic advocate of composers such as Boulez and Stockhausen.
The truth is, Cherkassky prized spontaneity above all, and that made him an unpredictable, sometimes frustrating artist. His appearances were always an adventure: one never knew what to expect. Caught in the right mood, he could hang fire; produce the kind of galvanizing, mesmerizing performances that justified the rhetoric of his most devoted acolytes. Sometimes, though, his approach to a score could seem slapdash, seat of the pants. At other times he seemed not to be there at all. I once heard him perform the Saint-Saens Fifth Concerto as if someone had slipped him a "micky" before he went on stage. He played this volatile concerto (which should have been right up his alley) as if half-asleep.
These early stereo recordings were made in 1956 and 1958 when the pianist was at the height of his powers, and they provide an invaluable opportunity to view an otherwise elusive artist. Certainly the best performances here demonstrate both his phenomenal technique and his mercurial personality. Lizst'sValse de l'opera Faust, simply dull and repetitious in the hands of so many other pianists, is dazzling, with many surprising, imaginative turns. In the familiar Hungarian Rhapsody, Cherkassky characteristically underplays the opening, but his buoyant, vivacious treatment of the main body of the work sounds exactly right, and (unlike Horowitz) he doesn't turn the fireworks at the end into the immolation scene from Gotterdammerung.
Quieter, more concise pieces — the Beethoven Bagatelle, the Godowsky transcription of Saint-Saens' Swan, and the delectable Liadov Snuffbox — are magical in their control of mood. The Scherzo from Litoff's Concerto Symphonique No. 4 — played here, as always, without its adjoining movements — is a virtuoso display piece of the first order, and Cherkassky tosses it off with a beguiling nonchalance, an ease of gesture that lets the music sparkle.
I did listen to several performances of the Poulenc Toccata for the sake of comparison; and surprisingly, Cherkassky makes more of this brief, electric piece than either Horowitz or the composer without in any way slowing its headlong momentum. In both versions of Gershwin's Preludes, Cherkassy is daringly free, but the performances are also convincingly bluesy, with an unusual depth of character. Both the Poulenc and Gershwin bear witness to the breadth of Cherkassky's repertory.
One would never mistake Cherkassky's Bach for Gould's, or his Schubert for Brendel's, or his Chopin for Pollini's; and it's certainly true that he tends to over pedal, exaggerate contrasts, and sometimes pause along the way to admire the view. But rarely does he violate the spirit of the music. Having recently heard way too many perfectly correct but deadly dull performances of Bach's music on piano, I found Cherkassky's unashamedly emotional reading of the Chaconne both refreshing and moving. The Chopin pieces — Mazurka, Waltz, and Nocturne — are presented with an underlying restlessness, a tension that makes them sound more ambiguous, more modern than I'm used to. The Schubert Impromptu and Chopin's Ballade No. 2 both profit from Cherkassky's bold performances. The drama he invests in these works makes them more rather than less compelling.
Abraham Chasins' once popular Chinese Pieces are examples of hollow exotica, and overstay their welcome at eight minutes. I have to admit, though, they'll probably never want for a more exciting performance. Such is not the case with the two Rachmaninoff Preludes. Cherkassky disfigures both beyond recognition. Having just reviewed Steven Osborne's complete set of Preludes, I was at first puzzled, then dismayed by Cherkassky's approach. He seems out to prove that Rachmaninoff was a much more confused and dysfunctional composer than we might have thought — and where's the profit in that? Finally, the two versions of Chopin's Third Ballade certainly demonstrate Cherkassky's love of spontaneity (as do the two very different versions of Gershwin's Preludes). The first take is tossed off in a cavalier manner. The second is so disjointed, so structurally incoherent, that the finale makes no effect whatsoever.
These performances were originally released by British HMV in mono, so this marks their first appearance in stereo. The original tapes were remastered in 2009, though it seems the original sources were not altered in any substantial way. The resulting sound is good for being more than fifty years old, but a little dull in comparison to recent releases. Certainly the sound does not approach the vivacity and realism of the Steven Osborne disc I referred to above. Still, this is a historical release, and it represents Cherkassky's art honestly.
This release makes it abundantly clear that Cherkassky could have had a major career if only he could have approached the necessary (if, to him, onerous) tasks of recording and publicity in a less capricious manner. If, say, he had signed on for the duration with only one of the many companies he flirted with, my guess is that he would have become as well known as Horowitz and Rubenstein. In the end, it's all too easy to discuss Cherkassky in the subjunctive tense. Thanks to First Hand Records, we can appreciate less what he might have been than what he was: a major pianist at the height of his powers. This is a lovingly produced and documented release, a fair and honest representation of a perplexing, fascinating figure, and a must for anyone interested in the history of 20th Century piano performance.