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Shura Cherkassky (piano)
Georg Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Air and Variations "The Harmonious Blacksmith" (pub.1720) [4:31]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Variations and Fugue on Theme by Handel, Op.24 (1861) [27:03]
Alban BERG (1885-1935)
Piano Sonata, Op.1 (1908) [9:42]
Nikos SKALKOTTAS (1904-1949)

15 Little Variations [6:26]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)

Toccata in D minor, Op.11 (1912) [4:34]
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Piano Sonata No.3 in B minor, Op.58 (1844) [26:32]
Shura Cherkassky (piano)
BBC Studios, London, 21 April 1963 except Chopin, BBC Studios, London, 15 December 1964
BBC MUSIC BBCL 4212-2 [79:36]


I had the privilege of hearing and seeing Shura Cherkassky live in 1995 at the Cheltenham Festival, 6 July, 8 pm: yes, I still have the ticket. Even at well over 80 years of age he was playing Bartók, Berio and Lennox Berkeley, and as those Decca recital discs from the early 1990s show, his programming was almost invariably fascinating and adventurous. The luminous tone and intriguingly individual musicality is clearly audible even on this set of 1960s mono recordings, and although the treble is rather on the muffled side there is no real hesitation in recommending this as an historical document of ‘the last of the great romantics’ in his prime.

The Harmonious Blacksmith variations by Handel is a nicely played, straightforward introduction which pairs nicely with the Brahms’ Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel. Cherkassky’s subtle and sometimes less-subtle pedalling turns this work into something of a tour-de-force at times, but with quicksilver contrasts, energetically rhythmic playing and some beautifully lyrical moments it is easy to overlook any of those mannerisms which made a pianist friend of mine once say, “you can’t play it like that, you just can’t…”

Cherkassky’s accounts of the Berg Sonata Op.1 became something akin to legendary, and with this recording one can understand why. His poetic but unfussy approach emphasises the introvert, intimate side of the piece, and makes it sound like an extended improvisation. Nikos Skalkottas is a new name to me, but it seems he wrote over 150 works in his tragically short life. The 15 Little Variations are attractive miniatures despite having an angularly serial feel, but with some jazzy chords and rhythms in which Cherkassky clearly revels. Prokofiev’s Toccata has a springy, jumping quality in Cherkassky’s hands in this session.

There is little difference in the sound quality with the slightly later recording of Chopin’s Piano Sonata No.3. One of Chopin’s musically most challenging scores for piano, Cherkassky wends his way effortlessly through the twists and turns in the piece, musing thoughtfully, facing up to danger and falling in love wherever the music so takes him. The extended Largo is the high point of this work, with the ambulatory lines flowing with eloquent restraint. If you like the Dinu Lipatti ‘sound’ then you will almost certainly appreciate Cherkassky in this music, even if his overall view is more anarchic.

This is an intriguing document: not all things to all people, but certainly showing a great pianist at work on some significant repertoire at the mid point of a vastly long career. With a few fluffs and imperfections the overall impression is that of a live recital, and that of one not so very different from the 80+ artist whose repertoire had become such a vast fund of the new and the weird and wonderful that his musicianship seemed forever youthful.

Dominy Clements


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