To a generation of audiences brought up on the sort of lean, athletically brilliant readings of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 that pianists like Van Cliburn and Andre' Watts have made the norm, last night's performance by Shura Cherkassky with the National Symphony at the Kennedy Center had to be a revelation. Here was that old war horse revealed to be, in fact, a deeply moving statement of enormous artistic merit. Those hackneyed tunes and bombastic posturings turned out to have unexpectedly subtle possibilities, and it was made abundantly evident that the sort of perpetual motion mode it usually assumes is not its natural idiom.
Cherkassky brought a huge arsenal of resources to this performance. He used the pedal aggressively, chopping off lines while allowing one soft note to remain. He took enormous liberties with rubatos in the antiphonal passages of the first movement, almost daring the orchestra to match him in answering, and under the inspired direction of Andrew Litton, the orchestra did so masterfully.
As the second movement began, Cherkassky kept the piano line soft, forcing the orchestra to focus quietly, and as each instrumental soloist caught the spirit of the repose, the sound glistened.
Cherkassky is known as a great romantic pianist, and lord knows, he gave a great romantic performance, but the power of this reading came in the musical ideas he revealed, not in the opulence or the muscularity that characterized his playing, and the audience that rose to cheer the performance recognized this.
Litton, who was in excellent form all evening, opened the concert with a colorful and persuasive performance of Gershwin's "Cuban Overture" and ended it with a broad and exciting performance of that orchestral orgy, "The Planets," by Gustav Holst.