Cherkassky

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Mendelssohn,Schubert,Schumann,Tchaikovsky etc
LABELS: BBC Legends
WORKS: Schubert: Piano Sonata in A, D959; R Schumann: Carnaval, Op. 9; plus works by Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky/Rachmaninov & Schumann/Tausig
PERFORMER: Shura Cherkassky (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: BBCL 4254-2

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The centenary of Shura Cherkassy’s birth is an excellent excuse for the archives to dig up some buried treasure. Both these releases involve performances that have never been heard on CD before: gems for pianophiles, they preserve the great pianist’s idiosyncratic and poetic artistry in all its glory.

Born in Odessa in 1909, Cherkassky moved to America with his family in 1922 and made his debut there aged 14, creating an instant sensation. He was much influenced by his main teacher, Josef Hofmann, but in both life and art he was a law unto himself. Diminutive and unassuming, he had immense charisma on stage. His performances sound utterly spontaneous, with no piece ever emerging in quite the same way twice; yet at the piano he was the epitome of poise and control.

Famously footloose, yet obsessive about detail, he lived for decades in a London hotel, more at home on the road or in the concert hall than anywhere else.

The BBC Legends disc was recorded in the Queen Elizabeth Hall in 1970. While it certainly shows off Cherkassky in the mercurial Romantics for which he was so celebrated – a Mendelssohn Andante and Rondo Capriccioso of ghostly delicacy, and a gloriously imagined procession of characters through Schumann’s Carnaval – it also includes the ‘big’ Schubert A major Sonata, D959, proving (as if it were necessary) that excelling in virtuoso miniatures certainly did not preclude expertise in larger works.

Indeed, Cherkassky’s wonderful tone and sensitivity to colour, nuance and atmosphere makes the Schubert the high point of the disc. The sound is not ideal (the hall had much to answer for) but it’s forgivable.

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The HMV studio recordings are older, dating from 1956 and ’58, many here in stereo for the first time. A plethora of Romanticism, this, with occasional forays beyond including two different recordings each of the Gershwin Preludes and the Chopin Third Ballade, illustrating the way that Cherkassky would vary his interpretations, enhancing inner voices, shades of colouring and deliciously singer-like melodic shaping. The recording seems warm, rounded and if a tad muffly, nevertheless very immediate. Jessica Duchen