“Since my arrival in America I started playing the Steinway, and I realize now that I could not possibly use any other instrument, but the Steinway which to me means, "The Piano.” It is wonderful! Only thus can I express my opinion, my thoughts, and my gratutitude to that divine medium of art."
Shura Cherkassky (1911-1995), a Ukrainian-born, London-based pianist whose individualistic interpretive style and affinity for dazzling virtuoso showpieces made him one of the last exponents of the great Romantic keyboard tradition.
he was a completely commanding figure on the concert stage. His performances of standard repertory works by Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Mussorgsky and Liszt were packed with wild twists and turns that made his readings incendiary, and when he played virtuosic Strauss waltz transcriptions, or essays in tone color, he could create the impression that he possessed more than two hands.
Because he was disinclined to play pieces the same way twice, he could be an erratic performer, and there were times when his interpretive experiments went awry. But listeners attended his recitals with the expectation that he would offer them something unusual, and he remained faithful to that expectation. Though renowned for his readings of 19th- and mainstream 20th-century works, he included music by Berg, Stockhausen, Messiaen, Copland and Bernstein on his programs in recent years.
"I do everything by intuition," Mr. Cherkassky told The New York Times in 1978. "I even live by intuition. For some people it works well, and for some people it would be a disaster. I mean, I can't really recommend what I do for others, because everyone has a different nature. And that goes for piano playing."
Shura Cherkassky was born in Odessa on Oct. 7, 1911. He was given his first piano lessons by his mother, and newspaper articles report extravagant early successes. He is said to have composed a five-act opera when he was 8, and to have conducted an orchestra in Odessa when he was 9, all while giving frequent piano recitals and being hailed as a prodigy.
When he left for New York, at the age of 11, he already had a manager to look after his affairs. His hope was to study with Sergei Rachmaninoff, then his pianistic hero. But after an audition at Rachmaninoff's home on Riverside Drive, the young pianist decided to look elsewhere after Rachmaninoff suggested changing Cherkassky’s musical style entirely.
Mr. Cherkassky instead studied with Hofmann at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia for almost a decade. After his American debut in Baltimore in 1923, a reviewer for The Baltimore Sun wrote that "not since the days when Josef Hofmann was a child prodigy has an American audience been so enthralled by a stripling in knickerbockers."
After World War II, Mr. Cherkassky's career took off in Europe and hit a trough in the United States. As a result, he moved to France and then London, and his visits to the United States became infrequent. A return in the early 1960's seemed promising: Abram Chasins wrote in the 1961 edition of his book "Speaking of Pianists" that Mr. Cherkassky "has complete mastery of the piano, which he handles as though he were putting the instrument through its paces. He has a beautiful tone and commands every shade of color, every variety of touch and texture."
As Romanticism came back into favor in the 1980's, Mr. Cherkassky became even more popular. His return was helped by a series of recordings made for Nimbus, an unconventional British company that allowed its artists considerable leeway. Earlier in his career, Mr. Cherkassky had said that he disliked recordings because they were "too coldblooded." But through the 1980's his recordings were plentiful, and included accounts of the Bach-Busoni Chaconne, Three Scenes from Stravinsky's "Petrouchka," the Liszt Sonata and disks devoted to Chopin and Schumann.
Mr. Cherkassky left Nimbus in 1990 when the larger Decca/London company agreed to record his concerts and to release archival performances recorded by the BBC. Decca/London released a recording of Mr. Cherkassky's 80th birthday concert at Carnegie Hall, as well as a set drawn from two 1975 recitals recorded in London.
Offstage, Mr. Cherkassky was a superb raconteur, and when he was in New York he held court for visiting journalists and musicians at his suite in the Hotel Pierre. He had a way of proving a point by seeming to deny that it had any validity.
"I'm a little tired of being called 'the last Romantic,' " he told one interviewer, and then went on to describe himself in entirely Romantic terms. "I just play the way I want to. And that can change from one night to the next.
Mr. Cherkassky never gave up performing, and died just before his final tour of Japan in February 1995.