New York -- The tiny octogenarian lifts his left leg, placing his patent-leather-shod foot right under a visitor's chin.
"Look at my shoe," commands the nasal, Peter Lorre-like voice.
"Go ahead, feel it!"
The polished leather on the left side is worn to steel-wool roughness from being braced against Steinway pianos in concert after concert.
"Every pianist has a scratch on his left shoe, just as every violinist has a mark on his neck from the fiddle," Shura Cherkassky says. "Tomorrow I go out and buy a new pair."
After a 70-year careeer, Cherkassky himself isn't worn out -- he plays with the energy and the wonder of a child.
The pianist, who came to Baltimore in 1922 as a boy of 11 from his native Odessa and returns here this afternoon for a recital at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, began his career with fanfare. But though he is now regarded as one of the greatest living pianists, it has only been in the last decade or so that he has finally won the recognition most piano fanciers believed he always deserved. His official 80th birthday concert -- he actually turned 80 on Oct. 7 -- is now deemed a historic event and will be recorded next month in Carnegie Hall by London Records.
But for years success to Cherkassky was simply a matter of survival.
"I generally don't like to look back -- I like to look forward," Cherkassky says. "But my career -- especially in the United States, my own country -- wasn't always easy. I never understood what the problem was."
Audiences in this country simply weren't interested in Cherkassky when his child prodigy days were over. Within a few months of his emigration to Baltimore in 1922, he was a national celebrity. By 1923 he had become so celebrated that President Warren G. Harding invited him to perform at the White House and not long after he was performing with the likes of Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra.
In 1924, the family moved to New York -- then, as now, the hub of the American concert world. He made his first world tour, which took him as far as South Africa and Australia, when he was scarcely 20. But by the time World War II began, Cherkassky See was essentially washed up. He might have ceased playing altogether had it not been for a trip to Germany in 1946 that established his European reputation.
"Ohhhhhh, how they loved my playing," Cherkassky says. " 'We haven't heard such playing since Rachmaninov and Horowitz,' they said. Now who knows? If I had gone later, it might have been different. But it's really only in the last three years that I've become popular here [the United States]. And for a while -- maybe for 15 years -- I didn't come here at all."
Cherkassky always had a cult reputation as a pianist with a Horowitzian technique and a temperament to match. Moreover, several of his distinctive European recordings filtered into this country by way of import shops. But when he returned to this country in 1976, there were fewer than 100 people in a 2200-seat hall in New York.
That apparent career bottom was really a new beginning. Reviewers were enthusiastic. And the beginning of the compact disc era added impetus to his career. Cherkassky's compact discs on the Nimbus label were among the first piano discs on the market and introduced a kind of music-making that -- because it was so old-fashioned -- was new and intriguing.
When Cherkassky performed Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto with the New York Chamber Orchestra and conductor Gerard Schwarz last Sunday at the 92nd St. Y in New York, his playing made no concessions to age: The passage-work was fleet, the complicated chords were accurate, the sound was granitelike in its power and shape and Cherkassky's pedaling made an instrument that is actually a percussion machine sound like a stringed instrument. His spontaneous phrasing and rhythms teased -- though did not break -- the music's line, giving familiar passages a fresh twist.
But it may have been the last of these qualities that kept Cherkassky from being a success earlier in his career. When he was a teenager, Cherkassky was out of step with new fashions in pianism. His slightly older contemporaries -- like the late Claudio Arrau, Rudolf Serkin, Vladimir Horowitz and Wilhelm Kempff -- paid more attention to the letter of the score than he did. Like his teacher, the great Josef Hofmann, the young Cherkassky played in a way that could treat the text cavalierly, with liberties in dynamics and starts and stops in tempos that often left conductors and orchestras in the dust.
Though Horowitz has been called "the last of the romantics," Cherkassky may be even more deserving of the title. Indeed, in his salad days Cherkassky was an almost troglydytic throwback to turn-of-the-century pianism, when what a pianist wanted to do with a score was just as important as what the score told him to do. In the late 1970s, after nearly half a century of often-clinical pianism, such long-ignored "romantic" pianists as Earl Wild and the late Jorge Bolet began to attract audiences; it was almost inevitable that Cherkassky would make a comeback too.
"I don't think of myself as a romantic pianist; I just play the way I feel," Cherkassky says -- which, of course, means that he is a romantic pianist. But the pianist does play such non-romantic classic masterworks as Beethoven's Opus 111 or Schubert's posthumous A-major Sonata with immense conviction and concentration.
And he's never ceased to be an adventurer. He was among the first pianists regulary to program Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 2 and the Bartok and Berg piano sonatas. Even today, short pieces by Boulez, Stockhausen and Messaien are almost as likely to appear on his programs as the candied miniatures and the romantic pianistic extravaganzas for which he is famous.
"To call him a romantic player in the sense that he willfully distorts the score is completely wrong," says Gerard Schwarz, the music director of the Seattle Symphony and the New York Chamber Symphony. "But he is a spontaneous player and you can never tell what he will do next." "I did a tour with him a few years ago with the Chopin F-minor Concerto. We did seven performances and each night it was completely different, ranging from emotionally reserved to sheer flamboyance. . . . With Shura all you can be sure of is that you can't be sure."
An idiosyncratic man
There is a naive, childlike quality to Cherkassky -- an almost completely bald man whose formidably muscled arms are covered with hair -- that is the despair of his friends and colleagues.
"Behind his back we used to throw up our hands and say, 'What can we do with him?' " says Richard Goodman, a Baltimore pianist who went to the Park School with Cherkassky and is one of his oldest friends. "He was put up on a piano stool and pushed out in public when he was just a kid."
"He's charming, but he's an infant," says his current manager, Harold Shaw.
"He's a wonderful man, but an idiosyncratic one," conductor Schwarz says. "When you're playing with him he will get mad if he looks up and you're not looking at him. If you don't pay attention to him, he'll punish you with an unexpected rubato."
Since his mother's death in 1962, Cherkassky has lived in hotel rooms. "Home" is a two-room studio in a London hotel that the pianist shares with a grand piano.
"I was married for two years," Cherkassky says. "She was a nice woman -- she's dead now -- but marriage was not for me. I like hotels -- I wouldn't want a home."
Cherkassky sinks deeps into the hotel sofa. With catlike luxuriousness he stretches out his arms.
"Here," he says, pointing at the walls, "you get room service. I want immediate service. I have patience only for my work."
He practices methodically -- four hours each day.
"By the clock!" Cherkassky says. "If I miss 10 minutes in New York, I catch up the next day in St. Louis."
He's also known to be impatient if he doesn't have exactly what he requires in his dressing room -- two of everything: two programs, two towels and two roll of unopened toilet paper.
"I like everything to be comfortable," he purrs. "I don't like to say, 'Where is this, where is that?' I like things to be right."