This enjoyable collection adds another facet to the gleaming jewel known as Shura Cherkassky (1909-1995), the pianist who shouldn't have had to wait for Horowitz's death to be called "The Last Romantic" and to capture the attention of a new generation of listeners. His recordings are not too difficult to find on CD, but most of those that are available now date from the 1950s or later. Now, thanks to Ivory Classics, we can become familiar with what he sounded like in the 1940s.
Cherkassky remained active until the near the end of his life. In a 1990 interview, he claimed to be playing better than ever before. Some agreed; they found his earlier work mannered. He was seldom content to interpret music safely, and he hardly ever played a piece, a phrase, or even a note the same way twice. Although he was a highly subjective player, it must be said that he always remained true to the Romantic spirit. This spirit is at full boil on this pair of CDs. Cherkassky was a link to the "Golden Age" pianism of Paderewski, Hoffmann, De Pachmann, Godowsky, and their forebears, including Anton Rubinstein.
Most of these works are short; many might be considered encores. Four of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies are included, plus a scintillating Gnomenreigen and a melting Liebesträum #3. Chopin, another Cherkassky staple, is represented by the "Heroic" Polonaise, two mazurkas, two études, two impromptus, and the Fantasie in F minor. That Cherkassky was unafraid of modern music is shown by recordings of two works by Morton Gould, a Prélude and Toccata, and the Boogie Woogie Étude. There are other discoveries here, including Saint-Saëns's exciting Prélude and Fugue in F minor,which opens the first CD. If I had to pick my favorite recordings here, I'd vote for Rachmaninoff's Polka de W.R. and Prokofieff's Suggestion diabolique, the former for its teasing elegance, and the latter for the terror that Cherkassky creates from it. Brahms' First Piano Sonata seems like an odd choice for this pianist. Although this recording is idiosyncratic, it's not dull. Cherkassky's volatile pianism is arguably just what this sonata needs.
These recordings, whose dates are not indicated throughout, were made for the HMV, Vox, Electrola, and Cupol/Telefunken labels. (The latter, which was heretofore unfamiliar to me, is a Swedish label.) The transfers are by Ed Thompson and Victor Ledin. "State-of-the-art technology" was used for these restorations, including HDCD encoding and 24-bit remastering. Vox records were known to be noisy in the 78-rpm era, but there's nothing problematic here. Cherkassky's playing loses very little of its color and clarity to the medium. The 28-page booklet contains detailed information about every composer, and many photographs of the pianist. In fact, I am surprised by how little biographical information about Cherkassky himself is included; it amounts to less than three pages. There's no doubt in my mind, however, that the folks at Ivory Classics idolize him… as well they should.
Copyright © 2001, Raymond Tuttle