Sunday, August 26, 2018

Dinner with Shura Cherkassky

Thanks, everyone, for your warm response to my post last weekend about Knightsbridge. In it I mentioned en passant that back in about 1992 a friend and I took Shura Cherkassky out to dinner at the Russian restaurant Borscht'n'Tears, and this has caused something between amazement and amusement, so I thought we'd better have a follow-up. In 1993 I was editing Classical Piano magazine (will give you the full story of that little exercise some day) and for one of the earliest issues I seized the chance to interview the almost-uninterviewable Cherkassky and put him on the front cover.

Somehow this interview has survived intact on my computer, so here it is. Fresh from the last century, other worlds, other mindsets - much missed. From Classical Piano, 1993...

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.'

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Lenny's Credo

It is Leonard Bernstein's centenary today. Above, the conclusion of his lecture series in 1973, in which as his 'credo' he predicts a new and wonderful musical era of eclecticism rooted in tonality. 45 years on, it seems he was right (though heaven knows we have other problems to contend with now that he probably couldn't foresee). Many of his lectures can be viewed online and I urge you to look them up: he was a musical communicator without compare.

The unanswered question? "I no longer know what the question was," he says, "but I do know the answer. And the answer is: yes."

And here's some music.

Friday, August 24, 2018

A palinka of a Prom

Joszef Lendvay (son) and Joszef Csoci Lendvai (father) in full flight with Fischer & the BFO
Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou
I reviewed last night's Budapest Festival Orchestra Prom for The Arts Desk: Brahms, Liszt and Lisztes! Wonderful to see the audience pretty much eating out of the hands of some real Gypsy violins and the phenomenal cimbalomist Jenö Lisztes, to say nothing of Iván Fischer's heavenly Brahms. And as a show of unity and strength in contemporary Hungarian context, it couldn't be bettered. Read the whole thing here:

Thursday, August 23, 2018


The cat is out of the bag! I'm writing a new youth opera for Garsington 2019 with the composer Paul Fincham and the company is now announcing the auditions, which will be held on 15 September.

So if you are or know a young person aged 9-21 who likes singing and stagecraft, send 'em our way, please. Details on Garsington's site here.

The opera is THE HAPPY PRINCESS, an updated adaptation of that ever-popular Oscar Wilde story, The Happy Prince [NB, the Garsington site currently says Andersen, but it isn't]. We hope it will be touching, fun, 'relevant' and full of beautiful new music by Paul. I've been having way too much fun doing the words.

Read about Paul and the audition plans here.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Knightsbridge March

The other day I went to interview a wonderful young musician in order to write the booklet notes for his next disc. We had an hour to talk about a very great composer, the challenges he poses, the eternal appeal he holds. The musician in question lives in Germany and was staying in a hotel in Knightsbridge, so I trotted off to the tube and got off at a stop I visit perhaps once every two years, if that. I wasn't quite prepared for what I found up at street level.

Start your week with the Eric Coates 'Knightsbridge March', above. It'll put you in a better mood than what follows, beneath. Because Knightsbridge is not like that now.

What and who exactly is Knightsbridge 2018 for? When I was a kid (OK, a long time ago, but not that long, surely?) it was a place we'd sometimes go to for fun on a Saturday afternoon or a day off in the school holidays. We'd park the car in a side-street and wander through the Harrods sale or the food hall, where my dad might buy matjes herrings or some sponge biscuits, and my mum might throw her hands up in horror at the tastelessness of its fake-Egyptian decor and the ostentatious displays of wealth on show. We might walk up the main streets looking out for an affordable shop in which to trace a good bargain on something useful like a smart raincoat or winter boots. I'd been to Knightsbridge, too, on a couple of dinner dates in the 1990s - one occasion that was a date date in a beautiful brasserie that I've never seen again, and once with a friend who worked for a music management company: we took the octogenarian Shura Cherkassky out to Boscht'n'Tears, a Russian restaurant that had apparently been a flourishing institution in the 1960s. That was an evening I'll never forget...about 25 years ago.

You know those designer shops in airports where the logo is huge, the clothes are literally chained up and there's nobody inside? That's Knightsbridge today, only it has knobs on. Sloane Street is a parade of fancy names - Prada, Zegna, Gucci, et al - and it's not as if you'd dare to go in if you're a normal kind of working journalist in your jeans and cardigan because there are what look like actual bouncers, never mind a security lookout, on the door. Anyway, why would you go in? The shoes are hideous: I surveyed some cream-coloured patent leather ultra-high heels with what looked like receipt spikes for heels, wide ugly-pink ribbons to tie them on and the label's logo in huge letters all over the back. Why would anybody want to wear those? How much might they cost? These places don't put prices in the windows. Who are these shops for? What are they for? What is the earthly use of them?

This was a Saturday afternoon, in August, when London is teeming with tourists. There weren't that many here, other than a large tour party of French students looking into the windows and laughing fit to bust. Some other interesting languages and accents did go past me, including Russian and Arabic. Occasional groups of women - mothers and daughters in some cases, ferocious people in heels in others - wore expressions of boredom, ennui and get-outa-my-way. A few clusters of youngish men in dark clothes, talking hard but doing nothing in particular, strode past: my guess would be chauffeurs off duty, or security bods in disguise. There was no traffic to speak of, except a few long, low vehicles in shiny black and gold zooming up and down making their engines roar for the heck of it. Who are the people who do that? What's the matter with them? Haven't they got anything better to do? If you'd watched McMafia, you'd have had the distinct feeling you were on its set and you'd have expected a film crew to turn up any moment. It didn't. This shit is real. This shit is happening in my city.

My musician and I wandered out to look for somewhere to sit quietly and talk music. The hotel had a posh restaurant, but no quiet place to get a cuppa. There was nothing, but nothing, on the main road. Eventually we went into Harvey Nichols - a shop that used to be pleasant and browsable with one's sister back c1995 (I even had Karina and Lindy going to 'Harvey Nicks' for a fun girls' outing in Hungarian Dances, written in 2006-7 - I doubt either of them would bother now). Everything is so beautifully presented in there that it's scary even to approach a garment to look at a label; you can't help thinking how excellent it would be if that amount of aesthetic care, expertise and money were to be put instead into the presentation of concert halls, theatres, colleges and schools.

We ended up in a coffee bar in the basement and did the interview. Yesterday afternoon I transcribed it and ended up with a splitting headache as I tried to disentangle my soft-spoken interviewee's words from the more than usually hideous thumping, wailing, deafening electro-pop music that blared out over us throughout.

The vacuity, the emptiness, the arrogance, the ostentation, the prices, the soul-deadening noise... What a place to talk piano concertos. My musician spoke gently, shyly, about the joy this music always brings him when he plays it, about the incredible, colourful range of emotions it contains, about how he and the conductor first met. And eventually I delivered him back to his parents at the hotel, and zipped back to the tube station. On the way home I stopped at the supermarket, where a young Romanian sells The Big Issue at the door and the well-heeled donate boxes of cornflakes or tins of spaghetti to the food bank collection point on the way to the car park, and picking out my fish and salad for supper I found myself wondering exactly how much money is being laundered though London these days and what will happen to places like Knightsbridge when we leave the EU, as I fear we really will next year (unfortunately I have no confidence in our politicians' competence to stop the madness before it's too late).

Meanwhile, there's this: many people in the British capital who have jobs can't afford to eat.

After our inevitable crash-out Brexit, when the medicine can't get to us and people start dying, there may well be a revolution. And then I will be pleased I saw Knightsbridge in 2018, because soon it won't exist any more. I'll remember, to tell new generations, what unchecked greed did to a once beautiful city. And then I'll listen to my young musician's recording, with all its sensitivity, humanity and communicative, poetic beauty, and I'll remember that that's why we went into music in the first place. The music will last and while we have it, God willing, our souls will stay intact.