At 80, pianist virtuoso Shura Cherkassky takes his time and enjoys his work


January 03, 1993|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

If you don't get upset by petty irritation, there isn't another piano disc you'll enjoy more this year than Shura Cherkassky's "80th Birthday Recital From Carnegie Hall" (London). For those who remember, this is essentially the same program played in essentially the same way that the Odessa-born, Baltimore-raised virtuoso gave here in the fall of 1991.

And if you were there, it was impossible to forget. When Cherkassky plays, you know whom you're listening to; there is no need to pick up the jewel box to find out whom you put on the CD player. Now that Vladimir Horowitz is dead, this is individualistic playing of a kind that will disappear forever when Cherkassky passes on.

If you know Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli's great recording of the Bach-Busoni Chaconne, you will probably feel sorry for the 80-year-old Cherkassky at the beginning of this disc. Michelangeli's performance -- which is the best ever of this piece and which is scheduled for re-release by EMI -- is built like a Michelangelo sculpture, with gigantic mass and tremendous strength of line. Cherkassky's much more intimately scaled performance seems to be played at half Michelangeli's speed and with less than half his dynamic range; you may begin to think that here's an old guy who can no longer play.

But within a few minutes you realize that this is a pianist who is not affected by his age and that he is playing the piece exactly the way he wants. And in Cherkassky's case, playing the way he wants means enjoying the piece. The pianist reverses dynamics and never hies to a consistent tempo. None of this matters; the effect is magical. The slow tempos -- Cherkassky's performance takes about three minutes more than Michelangeli's -- sometimes make the performance seem even slower than it is. But to call this reading slow is not to be pejorative. Cherkassky takes more time to articulate his ideas in the same way that a remarkable public speaker takes more time to give an adjective a little extra emphasis -- so that you really understand what he's getting at.

Now, ideas, when one is speaking of Cherkassky, do not mean the same thing they do when one is speaking of a Sviatoslav Richter, a Rudolf Serkin, or a Claudio Arrau. Cherkassky is not a musical thinker, but a charmer who probably never let a thought about musical scholarship disturb his sleep. For him -- as it was for Cherkassky's great teacher, Josef Hofmann, and for several other great pianists who were at their height more than 60 years ago -- music is a vehicle for self-expression.

But this -- as performances on this disc of Schumann's Symphonic Etudes and Chopin's F Minor Nocturne (opus 55, No. 1) demonstrate -- does not mean he is unmusical. Although stories about Cherkassky's personal eccentricities are the stuff of legend (and most of them are accurate), he is not really an eccentric pianist, merely an individualistic one. (One sometimes suspects that he plays the way a lot of other pianists wish they could, but don't dare to.) He's also much different from such modern individualists as Ivo Pogorelich who seem to play "differently" simply to provoke. Such musicians merely sound quirky; the miracle about Cherkassky is that he sounds natural.

In Schumann's Symphonic Etudes, his luscious tone, his attention to the polyphonic side of the music and his marvelously detailed phrasing never eschew a grasp of the overall shape of the work. This should not be the only performance of the piece you own, but in his capricious playing, Cherkassky conjures up sounds in this music that you never expected to hear and are likely never to hear again.

The great Chopin nocturne is equally beautiful. Cherkassky takes nearly a minute longer to play this little piece than most pianists because he takes more time to dwell on the butterfly-beautiful turns in Chopin's embellishments. The pianist plays as if he is captivated by how beautiful the piece is and -- in the process -- he captivates the listener.

The rest of the disc is just as magical. The breath-taking, heart-melting pianism in the Tchaikovsky-Pabst "Paraphrase on themes from 'Eugene Onegin' " evokes the elegance and laughter of an era that World War I shattered; a vibrant performance of Ives' "Three-page Sonata" makes you appreciate octogenarian who's still got enough curiosity to explore obscure music; and difficult-to-put-together confections such as Hofmann's "Kaleidoscope" and Morton Gould's "Boogie Woogie Etude" are tossed off with the confidence and dexterity of a master pastry chef.

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