Alicia de Larrocha

Written on October 6, 2009 by Rolf Strom-Olsen in Arts & Cultures & Societies

Rolf Strom-Olsen

De_Larrocha It is a dreary platitude that somehow musicians are better able to interpret music from within their own cultural tradition than outsiders. Not that nationality and tradition don't count for anything, but such qualifications rarely stand up to much scrutiny and can sometimes lead to amusing misjudgments.

The English musicologist Donald Francis Tovey recounts the story of a British pianist who, in the first decade of the twentieth century, went to Berlin to play a concert of Beethoven's First Piano Concerto. Now it is well known that Beethoven was fearful that the traditional freedom allowed the performer during the cadenzas (free improvisations by the soloist usually at the end of a movement) would spoil the purity of his compositions. In a fit of supersized ego, therefore, he wrote out a number of cadenzas for each of his first four piano concertos that performers could use, instead of blundering around on their own. (In the fifth concerto, the Emperor, he simply dispensed with the improvisational opportunity altogether.) 

For his first concerto, Beethoven felt his initial efforts were insufficient so he published a number of improved revisions over the course of his life; these latter are the ones typically performed. The unnamed English pianist in Tovey's story, however, decided to revive Beethoven's earliest cadenza in the concert. This departure from the familiar did not sit well with the Berlin audience who, unaware that the cadenza was in fact from Beethoven's pen, felt the pianist was taking unacceptable liberties with the score. The reviews derided the performance as a demonstration that English performers could not play German music. Such are the perils of ascribing national identity to musical expression.

In certain rare cases, however, the cliché holds true. And one such case was the Spanish pianist Alicia de Larrocha, who died last month at the age of 86. Her fame and longevity as a performer were so great that the world's press was filled with encomiastic obituaries, many of which hailed her as the "greatest Spanish pianist." Now that is an interesting claim, because it is raises the question: was de Larrocha a great pianist from Spain, or a great Spanish pianist?

She was, in fact, both. Her performances of Mozart, especially, were justly celebrated for the lightness of touch and clarity of line and expression that she brought to the music. To my mind, her performance of Mozart's A major concerto, K. 488 with Colin Davis and the English Chamber Orchestra for RCA is simply the best there is. Here is her playing the opening statement from the famous second movement of that piece.

De Larrocha manages to squeeze every last drop of lyricism from the opening theme, but does so in strict meter and remaining true to the piano (quiet) marking across its length, through an extraordinarily subtle modulation of dynamic expression. It is highly regrettable that this recording is currently not available. Let's hope that her Mozart discography is fully revived.

But while Alicia de Larrocha, a pianist from Spain, made definitive recordings of the Mozart canon, Alicia de Larrocha came into her own as a Spanish pianist. She made numerous recordings of Spanish composers, from the well-known like Granados and de Falla to the rather obscure Turina to the outright unknown Mompou (whose global reputation can safely be said to exist thanks to her recordings). However, while her efforts here were certainly noteworthy, there is one recording she made which stands out above all others, and not only in the sense that it is the Magnum Opus of her career but that it must in fact rank as one of the best recordings ever made by any pianist of any composition. And that is her first recording of Isaac Albeniz' Iberia (she made two more, but they don't compare, even if the sound quality is dramatically improved in the later recordings). From the opening melancholy of the first notes of the Evocación to the last note of the cheerful and reflective Puerta de Tierra, de Larrocha set a standard of performance for this piece that I cannot imagine being surpassed.

Iberia is hands down the best of Albéniz' compositions. It is a brutally hard work to play, up there with other performer-slayers like Ravel's monstrously difficult Gaspard de la Nuit. Despite her small stature, however, de Larrocha had enormous technique and it is on full display in her first recording of this piece. What makes this performance so exceptional is that despite the length and complexity of the score, de Larrocha manages to get every single detail of the music right. Whether it is a slight modulation of the tempo in a glissando run, the color of a particular phrase, the subtlest of dynamic shifts or the spacing of expression, de Larrocha owned this piece from the inside out. She manages to find the right tone for every note of every bar, and dismisses the horrendous technical challenges of the music in a dazzling display of limpid virtuosity.

Here's an example of what I mean. This is the opening of the second movement of Book 1, El Puerto.

That should make you want to go buy the whole recording, but beyond that the point is this. Even this small excerpt is full of subtleties of interpretation, many – most – of which are not in Albéniz’ score. Albéniz indicated that the second note of the opening phrase (A-flat if you are following along) should ring out, but notice the tiniest of pauses on the note when de Larrocha plays the phrase in repetition at a lower volume. That dynamic modulation is not indicated in the original score and de Larrocha makes sense of her departure by using the subtlest shading of tempo to sell the innovation. Likewise, the judicious use of rubato and the dynamic shaping and many other details as well are de Larrocha not Albéniz. Even this small excerpt is brimming with attention to the smallest detail. And that is just one minute of one piece of one book of a work which covers four books and lasts upwards of a hundred minutes. 

It is the interpretative, not technical, mastery over the full range of this piece that suggests de Larrocha was able to revel in the full complexities of this piece because she was a Spanish pianist. Iberia makes full use of the Spanish soundscape – the frequent mimicry of guitar is one obvious example, as is the use of classical Spanish dance meters and vocal mannerisms, such as the fandango or the cante jondo of Flamenco. And it is De Larrocha's familiarity with this tradition that enable her to exploit the possibilities of this exceptional composition to the full. 

The world has lost a master musician in Alicia de Larrocha, yes a brilliant pianist who happened to have been born in Spain, but also a great Spanish pianist.


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