Cherkassky, Shura


Almost forty-five years ago, in February 1975, two concerts of the world-famous American pianist Shura Cherkassky were announced in Moscow Conservatory's Grand Hall. In the Soviet Union, his name was surrounded by legends, but there were no records with his performances, and the public was not prepared for his arrival. An elderly lady with a huge bouquet of flowers attracted attention of the audience. Such bouquets were rare in winter Moscow in those days, hence the woman was known to everyone. Her name was Tatyana Pelttser. To the question from friends about what the Great Hall owed to her coming up, Pelttser replied, “My cousin is playing today”. Then a small man appeared on the stage with the face of an aged child prodigy, with small hands, with the kind, slightly guilty smile, with Socrates big head. Whatever this little man played, everything was peculiar, unexpected and unpredictable. The program of two concerts –on February 2 and 13 was vast and varied: The Pathetic sonata by Beethoven, compositions by Chopin, Schubert, very rarely performed fantasy by Mendelssohn, partita by Jean-Baptiste Lully, preludes by Alexander Scriabin, Variation on the Corelli theme by Sergei Rachmaninoff and Liszt’s multi-aspect fantasy “Don Juan”. The impression of his performance was overwhelming. "The eccentric genius," as the English magazine “Piano” called him. His playing turned upside down the listeners' perceptions of the performed works. After the first concert, multiple people went backstage to congratulate the pianist, and witnessed the meeting between Pelttser and Cherkassky - both sobbed. “We haven't seen each other for about fifty years,” Pelttser said. Cherkassky’s Russian melodious speech was interspersed with Yiddish phrases, and Tatyana Pelttser answered her brother in the same manner.

Shura (Alexander Isaakovich) Cherkassky was born in Odessa on October 7, 1909 (according to some sources - in 1911). From early childhood, he was fond of music and at the age of five composed his first opera. His mother was his first teacher. At the age of nine, he already was giving public concerts. In 1922, the Cherkassky family emigrated from Russia and after long wanderings settled in the United States, in the city of Baltimore. Shura gave his first private concert in the United States on March 3, 1923, after that he was performing in various cities of America; he played with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Walter Damrosch as well. Later he performed at the White House at the invitation of US President Warren Harding. At the same time, the young musician played for Rachmaninoff. He was dreaming of studying under him. Hence, Rachmaninoff set a condition to stop the concert activity for two years of studying. The boy’s parents rejected this idea. After some time, Cherkassky entered the Curtis Institute of Music where he studied under Josef Hofmann, the illuminous Polish pianist, the former student of Anton Rubinstein. Hoffmann did not object to the boy’s concert performances. Since 1928, Shura became a concert pianist. However, even before that, as a 14-year-old teenager, Cherkassky performed in Australia and New Zealand, where he traveled with his father. The later quitted his practice as a dentist for his son’s career. Cherkassky's debut in England took place in 1937, in the same period he played in China, Japan and Russia. He gave two concerts in his native Odessa. In Leningrad, after the performance the First Piano Concerto by Tchaikovsky, the instrument began to move off the stage due insane ovations of the public.

The manner of Cherkassky performance was controversial; it did not fit into any framework. The spirit of carefree virtuosity and charm hovered over his playing despite his short fingers and an apparent lack of strength. Critics said, and not without reason, about the flavor of “cabaret”, about free and subjective treatment of the author’s text and about stylistic imbalance. Cherkassky did not care about the purity of style, he just played as he felt, and beautiful music poured from under his fingers. The appeal of his manner of playing was in the spontaneity of feelings, the beauty of sound, the element of surprise, and the ability to read between the lines. The poetic “Carnival” by Schumann, sonatas by Schubert, Mendelssohn, “Islamei” by Balakirev, works of Prokofiev and "Petrushka" by Stravinsky were Cherkassky’s major achievements, where the pianist demonstrated demoniac super technics. No one could equal him in the performance of piano miniatures: he liked to emphasize the dancing spirit of plays, to achieve the incendiary brilliance in the compositions of Rubinstein and Rachmaninov. He played the “Tango” by Isaac Albeniz an encore in Moscow thirty years ago, and the audience was franticly delighted. Such performance suggested that the artist had a unique and strong personality. American critic Jacobs wrote in the late 70’s, "Cherkassky is one of the original talents, he is a primordial genius". Cherkassky toured around the entire world: he was in Thailand, India, Singapore and Afghanistan. In one interview, he noted, “As an artist, I am very punctual. This is not because I play better than others do. Managers love me since I am very reliable. I look deceivingly, as if helpless, but that’s not at all". While on tours, the musician demanded a greenroom with towels and means for handwashing, a piano and two chairs, as he usually laid his feet on a chair while resting. Once, when Shura Cherkassky was playing with Mstislav Rostropovich, the latter went to the pianist ten minutes before going on stage and said: “Rest, rest. Put your feet on the chair”. Cherkassky recalled, “How funny! I have been doing this all my life”. Cherkassky often said, “I do not like standard interpretations. I like surprises". He often played humorous piano plays, shocking and teasing the audience with such works as “The Polka” by Lennox Berkeley, “The Humorous Fugato” by Mann-Suk and the extravagant “Polka” by Shostakovich from the ballet “The Golden Age”. He had a peculiar sense of humor. Once he laughed for a long time, when an old American woman told him backstage: “Mr. Tchaikovsky, you are an amazing pianist, but I thought you died a century ago!” Shura Cherkassky played together with many great conductors - Herbert von Karajan, Leopold Stokowski and John Barbirolli. However, some conductors avoided performing with him, since his playing was spontaneous; he did not like fixed interpretations and often made conductors nervous. Already in the 80–90’s, he re-recorded the Third Concert by Rachmaninov with Yuri Temirkanov and the Fourth Concert by his adored Anton Rubinstein with Vladimir Ashkenazy.

Decca realized both recordings. These were the reference preforming. Cherkassky never entered the jury of international competitions and never was engaged in pedagogy. He recalled how many years ago the father of young Daniel Barenboim begged him to study with his son. “When Daniel played the first beats of Beethoven’s sonata, I realized that a super pianist was in front of me. What can I teach him? Everything is clear already!” In the interview with “Piano” magazine, he said, “I’d rather sweep a street than teach. What can I say more or teach someone if I myself do not know how I do it. I can do more harm than favor”.

Vladimir Horowitz was his idol. Cherkassky recalled, “When I first heard him during his debut at Carnegie Hall in 1928, I was completely mesmerized. And I told myself,  I have to play like him ... I wanted to find out how he lives, how he does it, I was just obsessed with it ... I knew many pianists - Americans, Russians, Japanese, but no one could be compared with Horowitz in playing technique and sound". In the early 80’s in London, where Shura Cherkassky played the Third Concert by Rachmaninoff, Horowitz all of a sudden arrived and came incognito to the concert. After the concert, he came to the Royal Concert Hall backstage to congratulate the pianist, and Cherkassky said that Horowitz’s visit was the greatest gift of fate for him. “My career was successful if Horowitz came on purpose to listen to my playing”. On December 2, 1991, Cherkassky celebrated his 80th birthday by performing a concert at Carnegie Hall. The program was compiled very unexpectedly, as was often the case with Cherkassky. Next to Chaconne by Johann Bach - Ferruccio Busoni and works by Schumann and Chopin, the sonata by the American modernist Charles Ives, the enchanting Kaleidoscope by I. Hoffmann, the Boogie-Woogie by the American Morton Gould and the Pathetic Prelude, which Cherkassky wrote at the age of 11 were performed. The concert was a great success. When Cherkassky returned to London after the concert, he told his producer P. Woodland, “It's amazing that at my age I can still play like that”.

He did not have the family or even his own apartment. He had been living at the White House Hotel in London for the past 30 years. He believed that great artists would marry their instruments and that his family was his favorite piano and music in general. He died on December 27, 1995 in London. The numerous records of his ingenious playing were left after his death. Even those who once criticized his performance nowadays call him extraordinary genius of the 20th century.

Shura Cherkassky was buried at Highgate Cemetery in London.

"Extraordinary genius of the Piano and enthusiast of surprises", Jacob Kovalensky. The monthly international Jewish magazine “Aleph”. June 2007