The maestro of surprise: At 82, the pianist Shura Cherkassky is just as quixotic as ever. Robert Cowan met him at home in his London hotel

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The Independent Culture
AT THE far end of a dark hotel passageway, behind a shadowy door, a great pianist is preparing for his next concert. The pianist is a long-term resident at the hotel and the room itself is small, dwarfed by a large grand piano. There are framed photographs, neat piles of music and a single-bed covered by a scarlet bedspread. I ring the doorbell and within seconds a compact, smartly dressed 81-year- old ushers me in, his kindly face dominated by youthful eyes and a slightly quizzical smile.

At my visit, earlier this month, Shura Cherkassky was freshly animated at the prospect of his forthcoming 82nd birthday. 'Don't you think I'm going to have a wonderful birthday?' he asked, awestruck at the coincidence that on that very date - 7 October - he would not only be playing the Tchaikovsky B flat Concerto in Essen but would be appearing, earlier in the day, on stage at the Dorchester Hotel in London to receive a 1993 Gramophone Award for his 80th Birthday Recital recording on Decca.

The actual event found him quite overwhelmed with emotion. There he was, rightly feted for his dazzling, quixotic pianism, evidently moved beyond words - yet a touching, solitary figure. But then, his one surviving relative had only recently died, and he was devastated. Christa Phelps, Cherkassky's world-wide agent, attests to his private nature, his insistence on very specific pre-concert rituals and the essential availability of a back-stage upright piano for practice. Genial and self-contained, Cherkassky hails from a place (Odessa) and an era that brought discipline, application and individuality to musical training and produced some of the century's greatest instrumentalists.

He holds American citizenship, yet he has lived in London for many years - a fact he's extremely proud of. 'A few months ago I had an official stamp on my passport that says I can reside here indefinitely,' he told me, beaming. 'I don't need a labour permit; there'll be no more questions, like 'How long are you staying?' - I'll be just like a British citizen] And I wouldn't want to live anywhere but London - London is a wonderful city: it grows on you continually.'

But Cherkassky cannot, and will not, stay put for too long. 'Even when I have a holiday,' he admits, 'I don't like to remain in one place. I get restless, I want to be on the move. I once asked a doctor about this compulsion and he said, that's just the way I am, and that I must do as I feel.'

Cherkassky's love of travelling, his unquenchable thirst for the new, extends to people; but when I suggested that a fascination for people might also signal an interest in socialising, he balked. 'Socialising? Definitely not so] I don't like those little receptions with their sandwiches and all those boring questions. I like artistic life, but I don't care to mix only with musicians: they talk too much about music.'

Cherkassky enjoys being the centre of attention and when holidaying recently in Israel, he made an unexpected, though anonymous, guest appearance. 'Somebody escorted me around and we went to different restaurants and cafes and almost everywhere we went, there was music. One night, during dinner, someone was playing a Chopin Mazurka on an upright piano. It was very beautiful. I went up to the man and said, 'You play so well.' He told me he was from Leningrad, then played something else. And then I sat at the piano - people were still eating - and I started to play the Mazurka myself. He looked at me and said, 'Who are you? Who did you study with?' I didn't tell him my name, but I did tell him the name of my teacher - Josef Hofmann. And he said, 'But he was a pupil of Anton Rubinstein]' I still didn't tell him my name, but he must have been very curious.'

Restlessness is also fundamental to Cherkassky's mercurial, spur-of- the-moment style of playing. The public loves him, but some critics object to his unpredictability - 'and lots of conductors don't like it, either,' he adds. 'I can't blame them. They're right. They tell me that they never know how I'm going to play - it'll be one way in the first rehearsal, another in the second - and then, suddenly, I play differently again at the concert. I don't know why, there's something inside of me. If I give recitals, that's fine - but with orchestras, I have to curb myself.'

Still, critics can exaggerate his inconsistencies. While he acknowledges the quality of the music press in America, Germany and the UK - 'They say I do 'very odd, unorthodox things' - but that I can do them. That means: it's convincing, so it's all right.' Things are different elsewhere. 'Very often I read in a French magazine that this was wrong, that was wrong - but that it was 'magical anyway'. It's a sort of contradiction, but I get it quite a lot.' He laughs, then continues.

'A few years ago, I played the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto in Alberta. It was after a holiday, and I played it well - although I wasn't particularly inspired. Then next day, the criticism was absolutely awful: headline - 'Cherkassky Cripples Tchaikovsky Concerto'. Then, 10 or so days later, I played the same work here at the Festival Hall and the Daily Telegraph said that the concert was so marvellous that people were lucky to have witnessed it. So how could I have played so differently within a period of 10 days, even if I wasn't quite so inspired the first time?'

Now, with stultifying routine rendering so many concert performances and recordings unmemorable, Cherkassky's jack-in-the-box spontaneity seems more treasurable than ever. Understandably, he prefers the immediacy of live recordings, and a new series of live CDs, based largely on material from the BBC archives, is well under way. Meanwhile, his concert programmes continue to cover new territory. At his Wigmore Hall recital next week, he will be playing the Hindemith Third Sonata, which he has recently reintroduced to his repertoire, as well as Sir Lennox Berkeley's Polka and Two Preludes, Op 23, which he has just performed for the first time in Amsterdam. 'Berkeley's son Michael came to the recital; he's making a film about his father - and so the BBC's Omnibus people came too. I'm very happy, because I like to play something British.' Unfamiliar music, a new adventure, a favoured haunt revisited: Shura Cherkassky remains the wonder-struck child - adventurous, unfettered, and as uncertain as we are of how he might fashion his next performance.

London recital: 29 Oct, Wigmore Hall, London W1 (071-935 2141)

(Photograph omitted)