Shura Cherkassky

Most reference works list Cherkassky’s date of birth as 1911, but his birth certificate, in the possession of his agent, proves that he was, in fact, born in 1909. The reason for the discrepancy is that Cherkassky was a child prodigy, and on his arrival in America, a child aged twelve was more bankable than an adolescent of fourteen. His father came from Bilotserkov, a town near Kiev, and was a dentist in Odessa, whilst his mother was from Tulchine in the Ukraine. It was his mother, an amateur pianist herself, who taught young Shura until the family emigrated to America in 1922. The first professional pianist Cherkassky heard, in Odessa at the age of three or four years, was Simon Barere. More than seventy years later Cherkassky could still remember the way Barere played the opening chords of Schumann’s Études Symphoniques Op. 13. On their arrival in America the Cherkassky family went to Baltimore where there lived a relative by the name of Julius Bloom. The director of the Baltimore Conservatory heard young Shura and arranged a recital, and two more sold-out recitals led to a performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor Op. 21 with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Cherkassky’s parents travelled to New York where their son played for Rachmaninov, who wanted the boy to stop giving concerts for two years while he taught him. However he then played for Josef Hofmann, who told Cherkassky that he should continue to play before the public, a fact that pleased his family and concert managers. Cherkassky was given a scholarship to the Curtis Institute of Music where Josef Hofmann was the head of the piano department, studying with Hofmann for a total of eleven years. After his New York debut, Cherkassky played in that city practically every year 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. Between 1928 and 1930 he toured abroad extensively, playing in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, South America, France and the United Kingdom, giving around 120 concerts. In one year alone (1935) he played in New York, toured Russia, spent the summer working with Hofmann, and in the last five months toured the Far East. He spent the late 1930s touring Europe but when he returned to America during World War II he received less favourable criticism, as by now Horowitz and his style of playing had become very popular.

During the 1950s and 1960s Cherkassky played for audiences that appreciated him: in Europe, particularly in Germany and the United Kingdom. He 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 he retained his American citizenship. The Americans welcomed him back in the mid-1970s and even as he approached his eightieth birthday Cherkassky was still giving around sixty concerts a year. Everything in his life was calculated: he had to practise for precisely four hours a day, not a minute more or less, and he knew train and plane timetables intimately. He neither smoked nor drank alcohol, but loved to travel and spend his holidays in very hot climates. He did not want friendships and his two-year marriage in 1946 was unsuccessful. During an interview he said, ‘My mother had a miscarriage after me, and she said “You are going to have a sister”, and I think I was about two or three years old, I remember I was livid with fury, I was so jealous. I’m not going to have another sister or brother!’

Cherkassky’s art was that of the unpredictable. There was always a sense of expectation at his concerts, the audience never quite knowing what would happen. Always the professional, Cherkassky would play in the way he felt at the moment of performance, perhaps bringing out an inner melody or accentuating a bass line. His tone and unique sound were legendary and are instantly recognisable. His sense of humour would appear in his encores which often included the Boogie-Woogie Étude by Morton Gould or the Polka from The Age of Gold by Shostakovich. Cherkassky could have his audience in convulsions of laughter as he played these works with a dead-pan expression. The concerts during the 1980s were always occasions for enjoyment and wonder.

Like that of Claudio Arrau, Cherkassky’s career spanned the recording era from its acoustic beginnings to the modern digital times of the 1990s. The first recordings were made for Victor seven months after his debut in America in October 1923 and March 1924. Just four sides were issued, one of which was the young pianist’s own composition, his Prélude Pathétique. A few more sides were issued from sessions in 1925, but with the introduction of electrical recording, the four works from the first sessions were repeated in 1928. Cherkassky was marketed as a child, but after that he made no more recordings for Victor. However, a little-known session took place in October 1929 in England for HMV. Nothing was issued from the session at Kingsway Hall and it is curious to find that Cherkassky repeated works he had recorded for Victor the previous May.

It was not until the end of 1934 and beginning of 1935 that he recorded again. The occasion was unusual, in that he accompanied cellist Marcel Hubert in Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata, the only representation of Cherkassky on record in chamber music. Another ten years passed before Cherkassky had the opportunity to record again, this time at the request of the new Vox Company in America. A series of short pieces by Russian composers, many of them rarely heard, was recorded. Cherkassky was around thirty-five at the time, so this is the first opportunity to hear him as a mature artist. A short time later he recorded four of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies for Vox and Brahms’s Piano Sonata in F minor Op. 5, and whilst on his tours he recorded six sides in Scandinavia for a small company named Cupol. All these recordings are stamped with Cherkassky’s individuality and unique sound and many are pieces he used as encores throughout his performing career. Works which he never again recorded include a tarantella by Glinka, a toccata by Khachaturian, and a pair of Shostakovich preludes from Op. 34.

From the 1950s at the dawn of the LP era Cherkassky recorded for many different labels. Frequent appearances in Europe led to recordings being made for HMV in the 1950s. These were recorded on tape, but issued on 78rpm discs. Apart from the Fantaisie in F minor Op. 49 by Chopin, most works were encore pieces by Chaminade, Saint-Saëns, Chopin and Liszt.

For the last four decades of his career Cherkassky’s concerts were regularly broadcast by radio stations around the world. It is to be hoped that many of these performances still survive as they include some important works, such as Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand, that have never been commercially available. There are surviving tapes from European stations from the early 1950s, and with the present lack of a true representation of his art from this period of Cherkassky’s career, these need to be published.

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).