With his slightly mischievous demeanor, the pianist Shura Cherkassky looks like somebody's grandfather -- specifically, a somebody from a Russian-Jewish background. To someone from such a background such a grandfather means a spinner of great stories, someone with the ability to make even the most familiar of thrice-told tales seem utterly fresh and true. That also happens to be exactly the kind of pianist Cherkassky is, and it was exactly the kind of concert he gave yesterday afternoon in Dalsheimer Auditorium at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.
Because he is in his 81st year it might be well to say that Cherkassky remains -- purely from a mechanical point of view -- a staggering pianist. Any pianist -- never mind one who is an octogenarian -- who plays Schumann's Symphonic Etudes with such accuracy and power and the outer sections of Chopin's E Major Scherzo with such delicacy and legerdemain commands admiration. But that is where Cherkassky's unique art only begins.
His music-making relies more on spontaneous whim than any other pianist of whom I can think. And his playing -- which can take off in startling directions as it frequently did in yesterday's recital -- is utterly fascinating. No matter how willful his playing was, however, his luscious tone, his attention to polyphonic lines and his ear for finely nuanced phrasing always served the music.