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Shura Cherkassky - The complete 78-rpm recordings, 1923-1950

Shura Cherkassky (piano)
3CDs Download only
Label: APR
Recording details: Various dates
Various recording venues
Release date: September 2023
Total duration: 191 minutes 28 seconds

This is a recording from Appian Publications & Recordings Ltd (to quote the full title)—the label invariably more familiarly known simply as "APR".

Since its foundation in 1986, APR has won an enviable reputation as a quality label devoted predominantly—though not exclusively—to historic piano recordings. In particular APR has won countless laurels for the high standard of its 78rpm restoration work—"Transfers of genius" to quote one critic—as well as the detail and content of its booklets.

In his later years, Shura Cherkassky (1909-1995) was regarded as one of the last ‘Romantics’—a throwback to the so-called ‘golden age’ of pianism in the first decades of the 20th century. As a pupil of Josef Hofmann, he had an impeccable pedigree, but we tend to forget his long career meant he was already playing and recording in that ‘golden age’. Here then are these early recordings, complete for the first time, starting in the acoustic era with the young prodigy’s 1923 Victor discs.

It is often the way that highly gifted pianists begin their life as a child prodigy. It is also likely that managers and complicit parents, for publicity purposes, lower the child’s age in order to make their musical feats seem even more extraordinary. Shura Cherkassky was no exception, being advertised as an eleven-year-old on his arrival in the United States in February 1923 when, in fact, he was thirteen, and would be fourteen in October of 1923. Because of this, all the reference books throughout his life gave his date of birth as 1911, as is shown on his passport, when it was actually 1909, as is proved by his birth certificate.

Of course, many talented children were born to poor parents for whom the child was a much-needed source of income. When this got out of hand the child found itself being dragged around Europe, as in the case of Heifetz, earning ever-increasing sums of money. Others, like Ruth Slenczynska, had an overly dominating parent who behaved like a slave driver and paraded the child before all the great pianists and teachers of the day.

Cherkassky was fortunate with his parents. His father Isaac was born at Bilotserkov, a town near Kiev, in 1859. An amateur violinist, Isaac was at first a dentist, but from around the time of Shura’s birth he taught Russian at a technical school in Odessa, the city where his talented son was born. Shura’s mother, Lydia Schlemenson, a pianist and pupil of Annette Essipov at the St Petersburg Conservatory, was born in 1872 in Tulchin in southwest Ukraine. It was she who was the boy’s first piano teacher, taking him to recitals in the city. The first professional pianist Cherkassky remembered hearing was Simon Barere (1896-1951) at a recital in Odessa when Shura was three or four years old. More than seventy years later he could still remember the way Barere played the opening chords of Schumann’s Études symphoniques, Op 13.

Cherkassky never went to school and was taught at home by his father. Just before the Russian Revolution of 1917, the boy gave a recital that included Schubert’s D899 Impromptus and Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in D minor, Op 31 No 2. He would have been around eight years old at the time and a year later he played for Reinhold Glière (1875-1956) and passed his exam in theory of music at the Odessa Conservatory.

However, the Revolution prevented any capitalisation on the boy’s success and his parents decided to take him to the United States where father Isaac had a brother-in-law, Julius Bloom, who had married Isaac’s sister Jenny Cherkassky. The family arrived in New York on 22 December 1922 and travelled to the Bloom residence in Baltimore. Within six weeks, the local press was interviewing Shura at their Morris Avenue home, writing about the ‘eleven year old’ who had already given a private recital at the Peabody Conservatory of Music for the director Harold Randolph and Frederick R. Huber, municipal director of music in Baltimore, as well as local music critics. The verdict: ‘Music critics were stunned.’

It was decided that Cherkassky should give his public debut at the Little Lyric Theatre in Baltimore on 3 March 1923. Demand for tickets was so high that a second recital was scheduled for 10 March at Peabody Concert Hall. On the programme was the Beethoven Sonata from Op 31 he had performed in Russia and virtuoso works including Liszt’s Au bord d’une source, Rachmaninov’s Polka de W. R. and Preludes  3 No 2 and Op 32 No 12. The Rachmaninov Polka was encored, after which two further encores were offered—Mendelssohn’s Scherzo in E minor and Beethoven’s Ecossaises—works to be recorded by Victor seven months later. Both recitals were sold out and led to a performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 2 in F minor with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in October 1924. Before this, however, Cherkassky was invited to play for President Harding at the White House and make test recordings for Victor. These trial recordings were made on 26 May 1923 at Camden, New Jersey, and the young prodigy cut three sides—the Rachmaninov Polka, his own Prelude Pathetique and Mendelssohn’s Scherzo, Op 16 No 2. He was invited back to record four titles on 31 October, three of which were released. Another session on 20 March the following year provided a satisfactory take of the fourth, the Prelude Pathetique.

Advertisements appeared in the New York Times for Cherkassky’s debut on 12 November 1924 at Aeolian Hall. Appearances that week by other pianists advertised on the same page included Josef Lhévinne, Josef Hofmann, Frederic Lamond, Olga Samaroff, Ernest Hutcheson, Clara Haskil and Alexander Brailowsky, while, if you wanted to hear a violinist, there was a choice of Bronisław Hubermann, Mischa Elman, Jascha Heifetz or Albert Spalding. The New York Times seemed deliberately to divert attention from Cherkassky’s debut, giving only eleven lines at the bottom of a column to describe the recital.

Early the next year the boy recorded six titles for Victor on 9 and 27 January 1925. None of these was released due to the planned introduction of electrical recording by Victor in mid 1925. In fact, Cherkassky returned on 11 June to continue to record the Rameau/Godowsky Tambourin electrically as the first two takes had been recorded by the acoustic process. The work was completed on 26 June with take 7 being issued. There were clearly problems with the new process, as can be seen by the recording of Chopin’s Waltz in E minor: again, two takes were made acoustically, but then during June, July and August of 1925 Cherkassky had to play the work 15 more times to get a satisfactory electrically recorded version.

What strikes one on hearing these discs is being in the presence of a finished artist, not a child still learning to play the piano. In addition to this is the extraordinary emotional dimension in a work such as his own Prelude Pathetique; nothing sounds calculated or applied, every subtle rubato, every phrase ending sounds completely natural: just like the adult Cherkassky of sixty years later. The audience at his US debut recital experienced a similar feeling, as critic Ellery Rand reported: ‘In five minutes he had that audience breathless. They forgot to be sceptical or even critical – forgot everything and listened.’

One must regret that Victor did not issue the twelve-year old’s Rachmaninov Polka that so impressed the audiences, but as they already had the composer himself playing the work in their catalogue, they probably thought it would not be a good seller.

While touring the East Coast he played for the great pianists of the day—Paderewski, de Pachmann, Godowsky, Rachmaninov—but it was Josef Hofmann, then Head of the piano department at Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, who saw to it that Cherkassky was given a scholarship to study under him at the prestigious institution. The boy was with Hofmann, himself the pupil of the great pianist Anton Rubinstein, for a total of eleven years.

After his New York debut, Cherkassky played practically every year in that city and at seventeen performed Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1 in B flat minor, Op 23, with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and Walter Damrosch. His final Victor recordings were made in April and May of 1928 and the four issued sides were electrical remakes of works already recorded by the acoustic method: a common record company practice at the time.

Between 1928 and 1930 Cherkassky toured abroad extensively, playing in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, South America, France and the United Kingdom and giving around 120 concerts. In 1935 alone he played in New York, toured Russia, spent the summer working with Hofmann, and in the last five months toured the Far East. At the beginning of that year Cherkassky made his only recording for Columbia Records, also his only recording of chamber music, albeit of repertoire that suited him well—the Cello Sonata by Rachmaninov.

At the start of the Second World War Cherkassky returned to the United States where he had not played for four years. Two Carnegie Hall recitals three months apart found the critics unimpressed; they thought he had lost his unique musical voice and that the prodigy had not flowered into a fully-fledged musician. He moved to Los Angeles where he lived with his mother (his father had died by this time) and tried to make a living working at the film studios in Hollywood.

In 1946 Cherkassky performed Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 2 (a work he championed throughout his career) in Los Angeles with the Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra and was invited to perform it again at the Hollywood Bowl under Leopold Stokowski (the second and third movements of this broadcast performance were issued on a Pearl CD in 2001) and then in Chicago under Nikolai Malko.

The Concert Hall label invited Cherkassky to record the work in Los Angeles with the Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra and Odessa-born Jacques Rachmilovich (1895-1956). It is similar to the later recordings he made for Deutsche Grammophon and Vox in that he uses the abridged version by Alexander Siloti with a few additional cuts here. However, this first recording has faster tempi, particularly in the first movement, when compared to the Berlin Philharmonic and Richard Kraus recording made nine years later in December 1955. The last movement is a tour de force with the orchestra coming slightly unstuck (around 4'00") and the soloist pressing ahead immediately afterwards. Cherkassky’s style here is reminiscent of his teacher Josef Hofmann in its sparse use of the sustaining pedal and an overall lightness and clarity of tone and texture.

Directly after the War, Cherkassky recorded an album for Vox of miniatures titled Piano Music of Russian Masters. A contemporary reviewer requested recordings of the pianist in larger works such as sonatas by Medtner, Scriabin or Prokofiev but concluded that ‘this is one of the best recorded piano albums that Vox has given us’.

Cherkassky then began touring abroad again where he found great success. In the autumn of 1946 he undertook a six-week tour of Scandinavia playing thirty-two concerts. Another album was made for Vox the following year, this time of four Hungarian Rhapsodies by Liszt, and although Vox also issued the Piano Sonata No 3 in F minor by Brahms on 78-rpm discs it was quickly withdrawn and only released as an LP in 1949. On another visit to Scandinavia Cherkassky made some discs for the Swedish Cupol label. Founded in 1947, it was predominantly a pop label with occasional forays into popular classical music. They had recorded American violinist Camilla Wicks in two popular encores in September 1947 and Cherkassky made three discs for them in 1949. The first was a coupling of works by Poulenc and Morton Gould. Cherkassky delighted audiences with Gould’s Boogie Woogie Etude throughout his career, so it is fascinating to hear him in the musically related Prelude and Toccata by the same composer. Although he caused a sensation with his rendition of Rachmaninov’s Polka de W. R. as a child in 1923, it was not until more than twenty-five years later that he recorded the work for Cupol. Again, a work he played as an encore throughout his life, the Cupol engineers captured in this disc, as in the others, all of Cherkassky’s tone, wit, style and personality.

He then had further success in Europe, particularly in Hamburg in 1949. This, coupled with more negative reviews from a 1947 Carnegie Hall appearance, made Cherkassky focus his career on Europe.

During the 1950s and 1960s Cherkassky played for audiences that appreciated him, particularly in Germany and the United Kingdom. Curiously, after the 1928 Victor sessions, Cherkassky had recorded for HMV at London’s Kingsway Hall on 9 October 1929. Quite why these discs were made, and why they were not released is a mystery, especially as Victor and HMV were affiliated at the time. Only three works were recorded—the Mendelssohn Scherzo and Beethoven Ecossaises he had recorded for Victor the previous year and, more tantalizingly, Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No 12 on two sides of a twelve-inch disc. His first published recordings for HMV were made in 1950 by which time the company was recording on tape but still releasing the material on 78-rpm discs.

The Chopin Nocturne is a lesson in legato playing and tone production; pedalling and overlapping of melody notes can be clearly heard in this recording of excellent quality. Cherkassky, unlike many pianists, knew the difference between Chopin’s Waltzes and Mazurkas and here he gives the D major Mazurka a rhythmic kick on the third beat of some bars, exchanging drawing room elegance for the earthy outdoors. We also get to hear him in an extended work of Chopin, the Fantasy in F minor, as well as a rarity which was the filler for the fourth side of the two-disc set. This infrequently played Prélude and Fugue in F minor, No 3 in a set of six Études, Op 52, by Saint-Saëns, was dedicated to Anton Rubinstein, but the only Étude from this set that receives an airing these days is the Étude en forme de Valse. Incidentally, this Prélude and Fugue has been misidentified elsewhere as Op 90 No 1.

Cherkassky lived in the south of France with his mother during the 1950s, and from the 1960s, for the rest of his life, lived in London at the White House Hotel, although retaining his American citizenship. The Americans welcomed him back in the mid-1970s and as he was approaching his eightieth birthday Cherkassky was still giving around sixty concerts a year, delighting the public with his unique talent until his death in December 1995. He has the almost unique distinction (Arrau is the other significant pianist) of having recorded from the acoustic era to that of the digital compact disc.

Jonathan Summers © 2023

A few words are needed concerning the technical aspects of this issue. All sources came from commercially-issued pressings. As a result, there is a certain amount of surface noise present, even after careful application of noise reduction and digital equalization. Reducing the noise floor any further would compromise the overall room tone and frequency response of the original sources.

Disc 1 contains Cherkassky’s earliest commercial recordings. Made for the Victor Talking Machine Company, they date from the end of the acoustic era and the dawn of the electric era. Surface noise problems were very evident in these discs. There was a different overall sound to the electrics depending on which session they came from. Therefore, different equalization solutions were applied to create a continuous listening experience. The Rachmaninov Cello Sonata, recorded nearly ten years after the last Victor discs, is a rather distant-sounding recording, with a fairly wide dynamic range in the loud passages. Consequently, the overall listening level of this CD is slightly lower than normal. I would suggest raising the volume control slightly when reviewing this disc.

Disc 2 contains recordings for the Vox and Cupol record companies. Unfortunately, the Vox recordings, especially the Hungarian Rhapsodies, were recorded on an instrument that was not of top quality. Through careful noise processing and equalization, I was able to make them sound respectable. One interesting note: there was a slight amount of pitch instability in the Rhapsodies which was corrected digitally using CEDAR’s RESPEED plugin. The Cupol discs, by comparison, are the first representative examples of Cherkassky’s art captured properly and on a respectable instrument.

Finally, disc 3 contains his first concerto recording, issued by the newly formed Concert Hall Society. This was a particular challenge to restore because of the poor-quality recorded sound. In addition, there is severe pitch instability on side two that is rather surprising for a commercially issued product of the time. Once again, CEDAR’s RESPEED came to the rescue in correcting this anomaly. The remaining HMV recordings are mostly remarkable sound-wise, since all were recorded on magnetic tape and then issued on shellac and vinyl pressings. I discovered one sonic fault in the Chopin Fantasy: an awkward tape edit. In the original recording, when the tape edit occurs (with a resultant dropout) the volume increases noticeably, then returns to its original level. Through careful digital editing and utilizing CEDAR’s RETOUCH plugin, I was able to correct the offending problems.

One final note: 2500 interpolations were created in order to remove any artefacts of residual noise, clicks and pops that declicking and decrackling could not remove. I consider the effort worthwhile as part of this homage to one of the twentieth century’s greatest pianists.

Seth B. Winner © 2023

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