Pianist Cherkassky uses spontaneity to put fresh spin on recital

November 18, 1991|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

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.

Near the end of the Bach-Busoni Chaconne, for example, the pianist was able to make all the different voices in the music glint with different colors. His approach to Schumann's Symphonic Etudes surprised anyone who knew the piece well -- indeed, it might have surprised the composer. He played the penultimate etude in an exceptionally dreamy manner, picking up the tempo in the middle section in a way that teased the ear and heightened the tension. The finale was startling: The pianist radically slowed down in the middle to bring out inner voices and concealed harmonies that I don't think I've heard in a lifetime of listening to it. In the rest of the program -- his teacher Josef Hofmann's "Kaleidoscope," the Tchaikovsky-Pabst paraphrase of "Eugene Onegin," the aforementioned Chopin scherzo and his F Minor nocturne and Ives' "Three Page Sonata," Cherkassky's devotion to beautiful sound and delicate nuance and his sense of fantasy made me hang upon every note. His encores included Chopin's Tarantelle and his own "Prelude Pathetique," which he first played in Baltimore's Lyric Theater in 1923.

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