Chopin: Piano Concertos / Shura Cherkassky

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CHOPIN Piano Concertos: Nos. 1; 1 2 2 Shura Cherkassky (pn); 1 Christopher Adey, cond; 2 Richard Hickox, cond; 1 BBC Scottish SO. 2 BBC SO ICA CLASSICS 5085 (75:22) Live: Glasgow 1 12/3/1981; 2 London 8/30/1983

Shura Cherkassky, according to the liner notes, was sometimes a difficult man to accompany, as he would often change his mind on phrasing or tempos between the final rehearsal and the concert; thus, annotator Robert Orledge says, “some conductors were reluctant to appear with him,” citing as an example the sudden rush with which he plays the final section of the Second Concerto. I can see where this would be a problem. I recall a live performance I attended by a famous American pianist where, suddenly, the keyboardist rushed forward and left the orchestra behind, and I learned later that he did not rehearse the work that way. The difference, if I may say so, is that Cherkassky usually had good taste while the American pianist I heard usually played with poor style regardless of his tempo choices.

Well, as Cherkassky once said to me, “Some people like my playing and some don’t, but at least no one can say that I’m boring.” True enough. Yet I was beginning to doubt that this would be that fine a disc as the First Concerto started up. Conductor Adey plays it very slowly, with lots of romantic gush and goo, and moreover the first minute or so suffers from what is probably a crumply original tape. I was not expecting much. But then Cherkassky entered, and his bracing interpretation of the opening phrases acted like a wake-up call for the orchestra. (Having heard Cherkassky three times in person, twice with an orchestra and once in recital, and also being familiar with many of his recordings, I just don’t see that he would have wanted this concerto played so slowly to begin with. It just wasn’t in his nature, thus I believe that he bristled at Adey’s tempos in both the rehearsal and performance.) From this point on—thankfully—it is the pianist who leads the orchestra, forcing Adey to pick up his tempo or be left behind. One is immediately caught up in the excitement, which despite a sensitively shaped second movement continues on through to the end.

With the Second Concerto, we enter an entirely different world. Richard Hickox was one of the great, underrated conductors of his generation, a man who viewed music as dramatic expression and molded his performances that way. From the very first note, Hickox is on edge, and I mean that almost literally…he makes Chopin’s orchestration sound almost like Beethoven or Schumann, full of drama and bringing out all sorts of inner voices with tremendous clarity. The switch from Adey to Hickox is almost as dramatic as if one suddenly shifted from John Barbirolli to Igor Markevitch, but Cherkassky is entirely in his element. There’s a particularly delicious passage in the second movement when the piano’s descending chromatics clash on one note with the orchestra’s chord—exactly as written, but a detail that normally escapes one’s attention in most performances of the concerto. And Cherkassky’s last-movement cadenza is incendiary, as advertised. It’s a heck of a performance that keeps you on the edge of your seat. Cherkassky’s changes to the text of the score are certainly evident but, like Glenn Gould, they generally enliven and enhance the music. Of course, that would probably keep this disc from being your first choice for recordings of the two concertos, but as a second recording it is definitely recommended.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: ICAC 5085

  • UPC: 5060244550858

  • Label: ICA Classics

  • Composer: Frédéric Chopin

  • Conductor: Christopher Adey, Richard Hickox

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Orchestra

  • Performer: Shura Cherkassky