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Phil Muse
Audio Video Club of Atlanta, June 2011

“I never think about technique; that is why I could never teach, not for one minute.” Shura Cherkassky would reply when asked why he didn’t accept students. “How can I tell someone how to do it when I don’t know myself?” That was actually a trifle ingenuous of the Russian pianist and world traveler (1911–1995) who obviously had to spend many hours practicing in order to develop his skill as a virtuoso, which included a uniquely warm, bold sound that audiences found irresistible. But there is something to the diminutive pianist’s self-assessment, after all, since he never played any piece of music the same way twice. He was famous for his little surprises, which included his quick subito entrances before the dynamic marking. Even the choice of whether to take a passage piano or forte would often be something he decided on the spur of the moment, always in the interest of making the music more emotionally expressive. He was in many ways the last of the Romantics, with a style distinctively his own.

On a continuum from playful to totally outrageous, Cherkassky was usually rather well-behaved in the major works on a program, saving his biggest surprises for the encores. His 1970 account of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, with the Cologne Radio Orchestra under Czech conductor Zdenĕk Mácal, is engaging and compelling from beginning to end. He is superb in the surreptitious entry of the piano in Variation VII, and he plays the celebrated Variation XVIII, including the buildup to it and the transition to the following variations, with as much lyrical splendor and feeling as one could desire. The final variation, (24) brings matters to a smashing close on Rachmaninoff’s first complete statement of the Dies Irae, the chant for the dead that was the composer’s personal motto.

In Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 7 in B flat Major, Cherkassky revels in the pounding motor rhythms and the general rhythmic verve of the outer movements, while he takes the slow movement, marked Andante caloroso (warmly, with animation) in a dreamlike manner, with a disquieting mood creeping in towards the end. In Three Scenes from Petrushka, the pianist does a superb job of characterizing Stravinsky’s pathetic clown protagonist in all his moods from impish to sad, depressed, and then frantically but helplessly protesting his fate. Cherkassky reserves the soft pedal for special lyrical effects in the central tableau, “chez Petrushka” (Petrushka alone). It is a memorable account of a work that was a trademark of this pianist.

What would a Cherkassky recital be without encores? There are three of them, allowing the artist scope for both his exuberance and his well-known penchant for surprises: Rachmaninoff’s Polka de W.R. (a rare indulgence in humor for that serious-visaged Cossack), Leopold Godowsky’s arrangement of an 18-th century Tambourin by Rameau, and Emanuel Chabrier’s Bourée fantasque that is “fantastic” enough in its rhythmic complexity and its dynamic range from ppp to tutta forza—just the sort of thing that would have Cherkassky spring from the piano bench upon its conclusion!

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