At 80, concert pianist Shura Cherkassky is finally being appreciated in the U.S.


November 17, 1991|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

New York -- The tiny octogenarian lifts his left leg, placing his patent-leather-shod foot right under a visitor's chin.

"Look at my shoe," commands the nasal, Peter Lorre-like voice.

"Go ahead, feel it!"

The polished leather on the left side is worn to steel-wool roughness from being braced against Steinway pianos in concert after concert.

"Every pianist has a scratch on his left shoe, just as every violinist has a mark on his neck from the fiddle," Shura Cherkassky says. "Tomorrow I go out and buy a new pair."

After a 70-year careeer, Cherkassky himself isn't worn out -- he plays with the energy and the wonder of a child.

The pianist, who came to Baltimore in 1922 as a boy of 11 from his native Odessa and returns here this afternoon for a recital at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, began his career with fanfare. But though he is now regarded as one of the greatest living pianists, it has only been in the last decade or so that he has finally won the recognition most piano fanciers believed he always deserved. His official 80th birthday concert -- he actually turned 80 on Oct. 7 -- is now deemed a historic event and will be recorded next month in Carnegie Hall by London Records.

But for years success to Cherkassky was simply a matter of survival.

"I generally don't like to look back -- I like to look forward," Cherkassky says. "But my career -- especially in the United States, my own country -- wasn't always easy. I never understood what the problem was."

Audiences in this country simply weren't interested in Cherkassky when his child prodigy days were over. Within a few months of his emigration to Baltimore in 1922, he was a national celebrity. By 1923 he had become so celebrated that President Warren G. Harding invited him to perform at the White House and not long after he was performing with the likes of Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

In 1924, the family moved to New York -- then, as now, the hub of the American concert world. He made his first world tour, which took him as far as South Africa and Australia, when he was scarcely 20. But by the time World War II began, Cherkassky See was essentially washed up. He might have ceased playing altogether had it not been for a trip to Germany in 1946 that established his European reputation.

"Ohhhhhh, how they loved my playing," Cherkassky says. " 'We haven't heard such playing since Rachmaninov and Horowitz,' they said. Now who knows? If I had gone later, it might have been different. But it's really only in the last three years that I've become popular here [the United States]. And for a while -- maybe for 15 years -- I didn't come here at all."

Old-fashioned playing

Cherkassky always had a cult reputation as a pianist with a Horowitzian technique and a temperament to match. Moreover, several of his distinctive European recordings filtered into this country by way of import shops. But when he returned to this country in 1976, there were fewer than 100 people in a 2200-seat hall in New York.

That apparent career bottom was really a new beginning. Reviewers were enthusiastic. And the beginning of the compact disc era added impetus to his career. Cherkassky's compact discs on the Nimbus label were among the first piano discs on the market and introduced a kind of music-making that -- because it was so old-fashioned -- was new and intriguing.

When Cherkassky performed Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto with the New York Chamber Orchestra and conductor Gerard Schwarz last Sunday at the 92nd St. Y in New York, his playing made no concessions to age: The passage-work was fleet, the complicated chords were accurate, the sound was granitelike in its power and shape and Cherkassky's pedaling made an instrument that is actually a percussion machine sound like a stringed instrument. His spontaneous phrasing and rhythms teased -- though did not break -- the music's line, giving familiar passages a fresh twist.

But it may have been the last of these qualities that kept Cherkassky from being a success earlier in his career. When he was a teenager, Cherkassky was out of step with new fashions in pianism. His slightly older contemporaries -- like the late Claudio Arrau, Rudolf Serkin, Vladimir Horowitz and Wilhelm Kempff -- paid more attention to the letter of the score than he did. Like his teacher, the great Josef Hofmann, the young Cherkassky played in a way that could treat the text cavalierly, with liberties in dynamics and starts and stops in tempos that often left conductors and orchestras in the dust.

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