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Shura Cherkassky

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Devotees of the art of Shura Cherkassky will be overjoyed at the release of these preserved German radio recordings between 1952 and 1958. These performances have never been released before. This CD has quite a variety of music by Haydn, Chopin, Poulenc, Chasins and includes a performance of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini from 1954. Cherkassky never tries to overwhelm the listner by technical bombast or gushing sentimentaly.

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SHURA CHERKASSKY plays Haydn, Chopin, Poulenc, Chasins & Rachmaninoff

1-3. Haydn: Piano Sonata No.34 in E Minor, Hob.XVI, No.34 [12:50]
I. Presto [03:56]
II. Adagio [04:46]
III. Finale. Molto vivace [04:07]
4. Chopin: Ballade No.1 in G minor, Op.23 [09:18]
5. Chopin: Impromptu No.3 in G-flat major, Op. 51 [04:47]
6. Chopin: Impromptu No.4 In C Sharp Minor, Op.66 [04:46]
7. Chopin: Scherzo No. 1 in B Minor, Op. 20 [10:05]
8-10. Chasins: 3 Chinese Pieces, Op. 5 [08:30]

No.1 ‘A Shanghai tragedy’ [04:54]
No.2 ‘Flirtation in a chinese garden’ [02:06]
No.3 ‘Rush hour in Hong Kong’ [01:25]
Recorded ∙ 27 February 1958 ∙ Bremen ∙ Funksaal ∙ Radio Bremen ∙ Radio Studio Recording

11. Poulenc: II. Toccata, from 3 Pièces, FP 48 [02:18]
Recorded ∙ 01 February 1952 ∙ Bremen ∙ Studio J ∙ Radio Bremen ∙ Radio Studio Recording

12. Rachmaninov: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op.43 [24:38]
Shura Cherkassky ∙ piano
Sinfonieorchester des Süddeutschen Rundfunk
Hans Müller-Kray ∙ conductor

Recorded ∙ 23 March 1954 ∙ Stuttgart ∙ Villa Berg ∙ Süddeutscher Rundfunk ∙ Radio Studio Recording

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Shura Cherkassky was born in Odessa on Oct. 7, 1911. Isaak and Lydia Cherkassky named their son Alexander but his mother chose to call him Shura, a Russian diminutive for his given name. And so it remained throughout his life. His father was a dentist by profession and violinist by avocation. Shura was given his first piano lessons by his mother, who was a pupil of Leschetizky’s wife Annette Essipov. He gave frequent piano recitals in Odessa and was hailed as a prodigy, before his parents and him as the only child, set out for America, to escape the distress brought to their home by the revolution. “We had a hard time.” said his father Isaak once “The people had no food, disease was spreading, and there was naturally no time to think of art.” It was not long after they arrived in Baltimore in 1922, where they had relatives. Shura made his U.S. debut on 3 March 1923, playing Chopin’s Concerto in F minor with the Baltimore Symphony. The Baltimore Sun wrote that “not since the days when Josef Hofmann was a child prodigy has an American audience been so enthralled by a stripling in knickerbockers.” When Paderewski heard Shura play, he was delighted with his gifts and personality. He declared that Shura must continue the same course that had developed his talents. “Two concerts a month—no more. A sound general and cultural education with special attention to the languages. The rest will take care of itself, and his needs will be met as they arise.” This last phrase was the one that pleased Shura the most. For he does not want especially to be this vague and mysterious creature that men call a genius.” His ambition is to be a regular boy and to master the intricacies of base-ball. Godowsky and De Pachman also heard him and were impressed by his remarkable gifts.

In 1924, Sergei Rachmaninoff invited Cherkassky to play for him at Rachmaninoff’s home on Riverside Drive. Cherkassky said “I even played his G-sharp-minor Prelude, and he was very impressed”. Rachmaninoff offered to teach the boy if Cherkassky would stop playing in public until he was older. He also wanted him to study with Rosina Lhevinne, to alter his technique.Cherkassky’s mother was not convinced this was best. So she took him to Josef Hofmann, himself a former child prodigy. Hofmann told him. “If you have it in your blood, don’t stop. No, you must perform, and I will teach you.” and Cherkassky went to study with him at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia for about a decade, and kept up his performing career.

“I loved Rachmaninoff,” Mr. Cherkassky added, “but I don’t regret the decision not to study with him. Why he wanted to change my technique has been a puzzle to me all my life.” He practiced with great discipline but for no more than four hours a day. “Hofmann said if you can’t do it in four hours you can’t do it at all and he was right,” he told an interviewer. Another interviewer asked him once “How is it that the man [Hofmann] who was possibly the finest pianist of the first half of this century, who taught at the Curtis Institute of Music for over a decade, produced only one pupil of international caliber? You!” Cherkassky was stunned, that no one had ever asked him that before.

“I’ve been thinking about your question. It had really never occurred to me before. But you are absolutely right. He never produced another pupil who made an international career and I can’t think why. But he was a strange teacher. He never really said anything to you during a lesson. I’d come in and play something for him and he’d just sit down at the second piano and say, ‘I prefer it this way,’ and you just copied him, I sometimes wonder if my parents did the right thing taking me to him. I was actually supposed to study with Rachmaninoff. I auditioned for him and he was anxious to teach me, but he insisted that I stop playing in public for at least two years while I studied him and built up my technique. He refused to teach me under any other conditions. My parents weren’t very happy about the idea and my manager was furious. It meant the loss of two years of percentage of my fees. So they took me to Hofmann. He agreed to teach me and be insisted that I continue to give concerts while I studied with him — which made my parents and my agent very happy. So I ended up with Hofmann. I guess it wasn’t a mistake.”

After his recital in New York on March 13, 1925, one periodical said: “On this occasion the young artist not only drew a distinguished audience but also received the warm favor of the critics, the World saying in part: “With careful nurturing, preferably in some musical hothouse, Shura Cherkassky might be in a few years the piano genius of a generation. With the outbreak of World War Il and the bad press from his Carnegie Hall concerts of 1940 and 1941, Shura Cherkassky’s career began a long decline. Cherkassky played in people’s living rooms to earn rent money. Things began to improve in 1946 when Cherkassky appeared in Los Angeles with the Santa Monica Symphony playing the Tchaikovsky G-major Concerto, followed by performances of the same work at the Hollywood Bowl under Stokowski, and at Grant Park in Chicago under Malko. During March of that year, in the beautiful oceanfront setting of Laguna Beach, he married a widow and concert manager, Eugenie Blanc. The marriage ended after two stormy years and he remained single the rest of his life. Then in the autumn he undertook a six-week Scandinavian tour, playing thirty-two concerts in six weeks to critical acclaim throughout Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark.

Although his career gained memorable momentum from 1946 forward the true turning point came in December of 1949 when he accepted, against the advice of all concerned, an invitation from the Goette Concert Agency to play an engagement in Hamburg, Germany, performing the Rachmaninoff” Paganini Variations with the Hamburg Radio Symphony under Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt. Later in life he recalled that he played the performance as though hypnotized. One critic of the performance wrote that not since Rachmaninoff and Horowitz had he heard such playing, and that Cherkassky “proved himself to be a superb musician who enthused his audience with a technique that bordered on the fantastic. His all-around musical quality is developed with equal perfection.” This concert resulted in Cherkassky’s popularity in Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands, which lasted until the end of his life. His playing caused a sensation in the European music world and among concert managers who eagerly sought him out for engagements, producing a dramatic change in his life and career that made his professional story in Europe, with the exception of France, totally different from his American experience. As concerns France, in 1927 he had performed to rave reviews at the Salle Gaveau in Paris, but although he lived in Nice from 1949 to 1961, he played infrequently in his onetime country of residence even in his busiest seasons until he was near the end of his life. Then, during the nine years preceding his death, he performed at several of the major French music festivals and in Paris at the celebrated Salle Pleyel and Theatre des Champs-Elysées. He appeared regularly at Europe’s most prestigious music festivals, including those of London, Edinburgh, Salzburg, Bergen, Zagreb, Carinthia, and Vienna. In addition to performing in Europe, Cherkassky toured throughout the Far East, traveling to Japan, China, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Thailand, with invitations also extended for appearances in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, and South America.
In the mid 1950’s he took a trip to the Soviet Union and while in Odessa, where he was born, he bought a ticket to hear a Sviatoslav Richter recital. “I thought it was fantastic and I went backstage to congratulate him afterwards. He’d obviously never heard of me when I gave him my name. But years later, after he’d played in Carnegie Hall and the New York Times had said that he did not have a great as technique as Cherkassky, which simply isn’t true, I went to see him again, after a concert in Vienna. This time he knew my name and embraced me like a lost brother.”

Cherkassky did not limit his repertoire, he was ever expanding it. His recordings varied from Bach, Chopin and Liszt to Bartok and Stockhausen. He said in 1973 “I am learning new repertoire all the time. This year I am concentrating on two works — the Brahms Concerto No. 2, which I have never played in public, and some Klavierstücke by Stockhausen, I feel that one has to keep up with the latest trends in music if one is to keep alive musically.” and he also mentioned the fact that he liked to play for others to get an objective view of what he was doing. “I used to drop in on Solomon every once in a while and try things out in front of him. He was very helpful.”

The critics have often remarked on the eccentricities of his playing: His habit of underlining secondary voices every time there is a repeated section, his extended and elaborated rubato passages, and his very personal choice of tempo. But Cherkassky was very much his own musician, and performance traditions carried little weight in his deliberations. Everything was examined anew. Abram Chasins wrote in the 1961 edition of his book “Speaking of Pianists” that Mr. Cherkassky “has complete mastery of the piano, which he handles as though he were putting the instrument through its paces. He has a beautiful tone and commands every shade of color, every variety of touch and texture.”

He made a recording with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic and Karajan did not complain. He had no trouble keeping up with him. “We spent a good deal of time talking about his recordings and the fact that his performances on records are so remarkably different.”
Cherkassky preferred not to record in the studio. “In the hall I feel much freer. I take more chances. In the studio I always feel inhibited. Of course I have changed a lot over the years. That is inevitable. One cannot stand still. ‘One thing I have learned with experience is what not to do. For years you learn what to do, then you have to learn, and this is very important, what not to do. That is much more important than the first and it comes with experience.”
After his mother died in 1961 he moved to London. Cherkassky lived for the last 17 years at a hotel in northwest London. He cared little for luxuries: his main indulgence was a two-to four-month vacation each year. His preferred holiday venues were countries with little or no rain — “the hotter the better.” Cherkassky kept a schedule throughout his career! He played as many as 80 concerts each season and was booked five years ahead. He marked his 80th birthday with an international tour and gave his last concert in 1995 in Paris. Cherkassky, who had undergone surgery a month earlier, died of respiratory complications, on 27 December 1995 at the Royal Brompton Hospital in London. He was 84.

Notes by Michael Waiblinger, © 2015

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Article number: MC 1033
UPC barcode: 791154054093
Recording dates: 1952-1958
Release date: March 2015
Total timing: 74:55

Producer and Audio Restoration: Lynn Ludwig
Booklet Notes: Michael Waiblinger
Design: Alessia Issara
Photographs: Deutsche Fotothek
With special thanks to Alan Thorpe and Máriássy Gergely
From the Original Masters ∙ © 2015 Meloclassic