Shura Cherkassky: An Interview, 1991
I first heard the name Shura Cherkassky when my teacher, Gordon Green, mentioned during a lesson that he had recently been to a wonderful recital by him in London. Gordon's face lit up as he recalled the concert, with that subtle mixture of admiration, amusement and awe which is a common reaction to Cherkassky's art. One simply does not attend a recital by him in the same way or with the same expectations as with other artists. The only thing that is expected is the unexpected. To see him merely as the last in a long line of Russian virtuosos is to ignore his wide and often experimental repertoire (from Lully and Handel to Boulez and Stockhausen). To see him principally as a miniaturist excelling in encores and candied cameos, is to forget the towering architectural grasp of, say, his Liszt Sonata. He is all of these things and more besides. After all which other pianist can reduce his audience to guffaws of laughter as in the Shostakovitch Polka from The Age of Gold, or Mildred Couper's Irish Washerwoman Variations?
If it is difficult to 'pigeon-hole' Cherkassky's art, it is even more so to find out who is behind it. A number of people had indicated to me that interviewing Cherkassky would not be easy. It wasn't - not because he is an unapproachable person, far from it. Rather he is so totally instinctive and intuitive, that questions such as, "How do you do this?" or, "Why do you do that?" fall on perplexed ears.
Sound? … from Hofmann? "No, it's just my own."
Pedalling? "What to say, I wouldn't know."
Fingering? "I never write in fingerings."
Teaching … Masterclass? "I could never teach."
The truth is that sound, pedalling and memory (three areas in which Shura excels), all come as naturally to him as breathing. He is refreshingly free from the studied clichés drawn out by most interviews - his playing speaks/sings for itself.
As our conversation continued, many intriguing facts surfaced. His mother, a fine pianist and his first teacher, had once played the Tchaikovsky F major variations for Tchaikovsky. Cherkassky himself played for Rachmaninoff in New York ("33 Riverside Drive … you see, I remember!"), who accepted him as a student on the condition that he cease giving concerts for two years, and alter his entire technique. ("He told me that the positioning of my hands was all wrong.") It was decided instead for the young Cherkassky to study with Hofmann, who encouraged him to play frequently in public. Later in life he played Petrushka for Stravinsky who made the interesting suggestion to play a certain passage loudly and incisively, but with the una corda (soft pedal).
We then began to discuss practising, and here more concrete methods emerged - very concrete in fact! "I practise by the clock, for me this is the only way. Four hours a day. If I wasn't absolutely rigid about the whole thing I'd go to pieces. You need iron discipline - sheer will power. So many great talents disappear about a short while because they get conceited and don't work properly anymore. You have to work all the time". I then asked how he filled this four-hour shift, how he approached certain problems. "When I practise it sounds like I can't play! - so I like to work completely in private if possible. I put my fingers very precisely on every key, making sure that they are absolutely in the centre, and I play very slowly. Have you noticed that when pianists get older how their playing often isn't clean anymore, especially in chords? Well this is how I have to work." I asked him if he learned this method from anyone. "Not really - although a fellow-pupil of Hofmann, Lucy Stern (a great talent who died very young), used to practise like this too."
We also spoke about repertoire, of which Cherkassky has a vast and varied amount. "I'm working on the Ives Three Page Sonata at the moment which is a new piece. It's very important for me to learn new pieces, to keep fresh. I enjoy the challenge of contemporary works - Stockhausen, Messiaen, Bernstein." What about gaps, pieces still to be learned? "I don't play much French music - no Faure and only a little Debussy and Ravel. I would love to learn more, but it's all a matter of time."
Outside music, Cherkassky loves to travel, and spends brief vacations in some of the hotter places on the globe. Sleeping and eating are well regulated, and a key to his remarkable health and strength. "I sleep between nine and ten hours every night, and very deeply. I never drink alcohol. On the day of a concert I eat a huge lunch, then sleep in the afternoon from about 3.30pm to 5pm. I then have a thermos of tea and some fruit in the hotel before going to the hall".
As we finished our chat, I became more and more aware of paradoxes of Cherkassky: his spartan, tiny flat with its huddled baby-grand piano (only two pedals) and the luxuriant opulence of his pianism; his rigid routine and stopwatch working methods, and his audaciously free rhythm and rubato - recitals stretching out with armfuls of encores; and the final contradiction of course is the most obvious - a man celebrating his eightieth birthday whose youthfulness, in appearance as well as energy, is totally unique.