He loves the hottest sun, the most exotic travel and spur-of-the-moment inspiration. And he would rather go to a nightclub than sit and talk about music. Jessica Duchen meets the 82-year-old Shura Cherkassky
Shortly after his much-celebrated 80th birthday a couple of years ago, Shura Cherkassky, a legend in his own lifetime, apparently walked into his agent's office and inquired, "Do you think my career's going all right?"
Cherkassky is never one to become complacent. And he never stops seeking fresh stimulation in life. It is not only his unpredictable, even eccentric, but always astonishing musicality that has made him legendary. Interviewers have been known to dread the prospect of tackling him, and one photographer refused to try again after the maestro nodded off during a session.
"I get bored," shrugs Cherkassky, at home in the small London hotel apartment he has rented for decades. "I have no patience for anything. Why don't I have my own flat? The answer is simple: because I have no patience. If I had a place of my own I would feel very isolated. I like to have people around, even if I hardly say hello to anyone – just that they're there. And if I need anything I just pick up the phone and ask the porter to get it. There is a restaurant. What would I do with my own place? A housekeeper would leave me because I keep the rooms too hot. I'm even difficult to go on holiday with because I like blazing sun. Most people can't stand it.'
Even the grand piano is rented: "Everything is rented. I don't care for possessions, it's too much of an obligation. Because I never know, I may leave on the spur of the moment and go somewhere. Really at heart I'm a gypsy. I like adventures. I get easily bored with ordinary things.' So how does a man with such abnormal impatience learn such a vast repertoire of music? "Ah, that's different – for my work I have abnormal patience," explains Cherkassky.
His great passion is travel. And his favourite country? "Thailand. I love Thailand. I love the Thai people – they always want to please you, and they never laugh at you, they only laugh with you. There is no country like it, none, none! I'd go there for a holiday any time except August when it rains. When I come back to Europe, to Italy or Greece, I'm bored. I like mystery, I like the orient very much.
"Why do I live in London? It's the centre of the world – it's civilised, it's comfortable. I don't take advantage of London, though, and there are so many wonderful theatres. But I don't know many interesting people here. I like interesting people, the people who attract me most are the ones who travel, who discover things.'
Quite apart from going on holiday, Shura Cherkassky has a schedule of engagements and tours which would be tough for anyone, let alone somebody of his years. But he is in the peak of health: "I never touch a drop of alcohol," is his explanation. "It's like an obsession, even if something is cooked in alcohol and it has evaporated, I won't touch it. And I don't smoke. Meat? Yes, I eat meat, but not too much – fish is better than meat."
The physically tiring thing for him, he says, is the constant round of backstage handshakes. "People always come backstage and they talk about their families, they say, 'Oh, my daughter plays the piano...'. It's boring. People say 'Come round and talk about music'. They don't say 'Would you like to see the town, go to a nightclub?' They think someone who plays Beethoven and Bach wouldn't be interested to go to a nightclub!'
Cherkassky agrees he has a reputation for being a musical eccentric. "Some people who go to my concerts say I can play the next night like a different pianist – not better or worse, just different. I never know how I'm going to play. I'm very unpredictable, they say. Yes, I am. And if you ask me why, I don't know. On the spur of the moment I can suddenly decide I'm going to make a diminuendo here. I used to shock people but I don't do that now because it's very bad. But I do some very odd things. The critics don't always like it, but the audience likes it. If I play too straight, the critics would give better reviews, but the audience would be less enthusiastic. The answer to it all is you have to be yourself."
He has never taught, nor does he enjoy listening to young pianists who want to play for him. "I'm too frank, and I can't say to their face that they will never make any good. Because you can tell, even if they're 11 years old you can tell immediately. And I couldn't teach, I wouldn't know what to say. I have no patience for anything. Have you ever been to Asia?..." Steered back to the subject of teaching, Cherkassky comments he thinks most performers do not make good teachers, "because you take it all out on yourself, you have no more energy to give."
Needless to say, he has no patience for recording studios either. "I don't have the inspiration to go into a studio and sit there and wait for a red light and a green light – I'm not very good at it. I'm self-conscious that I may make a mistake and have to repeat it over again." Most of the recordings that are now being issued are from live concerts, as encouraged by the late and much missed producer Peter Wadland, who worked closely with Cherkassky. Decca's discs from Carnegie Hall are a good example, though again Cherkassky is critical: "I didn't like the Chopin sonatas, but to my surprise the CD magazine gave me a rave review. But the encores, the short pieces, those are very good – Sinding Rustle of Spring, Moszkowski waltzes, just short pieces.' He reflects. "And Tchaikovsky's own arrangement of 'None but the Lonely Heart' – of that I'm very proud.'