P0774. ALICIA DE LARROCHA: de Falla Recital. (E.U.) Newton Classics 8802009, recorded 1973, Kingsway Hall, London. - 8718247710096
“An all-Falla album by Alicia de Larrocha at the height of her powers very well recorded is one idea of Nirvana. No one plays this repertory with more authority and magic….Many find her subtle sense of rhythm, so important in this repertory, the most distinctive element in her playing, but it is her unique sense of color that most bewitches me. This recording captures it uncannily well.”
- Jack Sullivan, AMERICAN RECORD GUIDE, Jan./Feb., 2011
"In a career that began when she was a child, Alicia de Larrocha made her concert début at 5, and her first recording at 9. Ms. de Larrocha cultivated a poetic interpretive style in which gracefulness was prized over technical flashiness or grand, temperamental gestures. But her approach, combined with her small stature - she was only 4-foot-9 - was deceptive: early in her career she played all the big Romantic concerti, including those of Liszt and Rachmaninoff, and she could produce a surprisingly large, beautifully sculptured sound.
Even so, it was in music that demanded focus, compactness and subtle coloristic breadth that Ms. de Larrocha excelled. Her Mozart performances, as well as her readings of Bach and Scarlatti, were so carefully detailed and light in texture that even as public taste shifted toward the more scholarly interpretations of period-instrument specialists, Ms. de Larrocha’s readings retained their allure.
Her approach to Mozart also served her well in larger works, like the Beethoven concerti. When she belatedly recorded the full cycle, with Riccardo Chailly and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, in 1986, her performance was notable for the devotional serenity she brought to the slow movements and her fleet but dignified renderings of the Allegros. But even there she retained a touch from a former age: instead of playing Beethoven’s own cadenzas in the Fourth Concerto, she played those of the composer Carl Reinecke, because those were the only ones available to her as a student in the 1930s.
Ms. de Larrocha’s most enduring contribution, however, was her championship of Spanish composers. Although Arthur Rubinstein played some of this repertory, few other pianists outside Spain did, and none with Ms. de Larrocha’s flair. She made enduring recordings of Albéniz’s IBERIA and Granados’ GOYESCAS, and helped ease those works into the standard piano canon. She also made a powerful case for the piano music of Joaquín Turina, a composer otherwise known mostly for the guitar music he wrote for Andrés Segovia, and she almost single-handedly built a following for Federico Mompou, a Catalan composer of quietly shimmering, poetic works. Although she was often regarded as partial to Granados - her mother and an aunt were among his piano students, but he died before Ms. de Larrocha was born - she refused to cite a favorite.
‘I don’t believe there is a ‘best’ of anything in this life’, she said in a 1978 interview with CONTEMPORARY KEYBOARD. ‘I would say, though, that Granados was one of the great Spanish composers, and that, in my opinion, he was the only one who captured the real Romantic flavor. His style was aristocratic, elegant and poetic - completely different from Falla and Albéniz. To me, each of them is a different world. Falla was the one who really captured the spirit of the Gypsy music. And Albéniz, I think was more international than the others. Even though his music is Spanish in flavor, his style is completely Impressionistic’.
Alicia de Larrocha y de la Calle was born in Barcelona on 23 May, 1923, to Eduardo de Larrocha and Maria Teresa de la Calle. Although her mother gave up any ambition of a performing career when she married, Ms. de Larrocha’s aunt was a piano teacher at the Academia Marshall, a school founded by the pianist Frank Marshall, who was also a Granados student. Ms. de Larrocha began to demand piano lessons when she was 3, after visiting her aunt as she taught students. At the keyboard on her own, Ms. de Larrocha imitated what she had seen her aunt’s students do, and impressed her aunt sufficiently that she took Ms. de Larrocha to Marshall. He was less encouraging. He said it was too early to start lessons, and suggested that Ms. de Larrocha be kept away from the piano. Ms. de Larrocha said that once her aunt locked the instrument, she banged her head on the floor until Marshall relented and began to teach her. She made progress quickly. At 5 she made her concert début, performing works by Bach and Mozart at the 1929 International Exhibition in Barcelona. She made her orchestral début with a Mozart concerto in Madrid when she was 11.
Happenstance led to her first recordings, when she was 9. She was taken to a recording studio to watch the great Spanish mezzo-soprano Conchita Supervia at work, and the singer invited Ms. de Larrocha to record something. She played two Chopin works, a nocturne and a waltz. Gregor Benko has written of these recordings that ‘it is uncanny to note that this 9-year-old demonstrates all the elements of Chopin’s style - tone, color, legato phrasing and singing line - by means of finger technique alone, since we know Alicia’s legs were barely long enough to reach the pedals’.
When Marshall, Ms. de Larrocha’s only teacher, left Spain in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War - he was, Ms. de Larrocha said, a target of the Loyalists - the young pianist continued her studies on her own. She resumed working with Marshall after he returned in 1939, and she took over the direction of Marshall’s academy after he died in 1959. Her co-director was the pianist Juan Torra, whom she married in 1958.
Ms. de Larrocha confined her performances mostly to Spain until 1947, when she undertook a European tour that included recitals in Paris, Geneva and Brussels. She made her American début with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1955, performing Mozart’s Concerto in A (K. 488) and Falla’s NIGHTS IN THE GARDENS OF SPAIN. That same year she had her New York recital début at Town Hall. Her program, which included Beethoven’s large Sonata in A flat (Op. 110), Schumann’s CARNAVAL and works by Carlos Surinach, Granados and Albéniz, quickly established her strengths. Reviewing the concert in THE NEW YORK TIMES, Harold C. Schonberg wrote of her Spanish set that ‘she had a way of idiomatically shaping a musical phrase that cannot be taught - a sudden dynamic shift, a note instinctively accented, a touch of the pedal, an application of rubato. Her rhythm was extraordinarily flexible. Obviously this music is in the pianist’s blood. She invested it with a degree of life and imagination that not many pianists before the public today could begin to duplicate’.
Yet Ms. de Larrocha was a reluctant star. She returned to Spain; taught at the Marshall academy; made a series of exquisite recordings for the Spanish Hispavox label, which were later licensed for release by Vox and other American companies; and played occasional recitals in Europe. She returned to the United States after Herbert Breslin, a concert manager, heard her Hispavox recording of IBERIA and brought her back for performances in 1965, including her first appearance with the New York Philharmonic. Mr. Breslin also built her recording career, getting Ms. de Larrocha signed to an international recording contract with the British Decca label. For Decca she remade the Spanish works that she had recorded for Hispavox, and added many others, as well as a great deal of Mozart and albums of Bach, Franck, Ravel and Rachmaninoff. She recorded for Decca until 1990, when she took a new look at her repertory for BMG Classics.
‘There are two kinds of repertory Alicia plays’, Mr. Breslin said in 1978. ‘Things she plays extremely well, and things she plays better than anyone else. But what I think makes her a phenomenon is that she doesn’t give the impression of being a great personality. She’s cool as a cucumber. Onstage, she doesn’t even like to look at the audience. So what the public is responding to is something in the music’.
After 1965, Ms. de Larrocha visited the United States regularly, and continued making annual recital, concerto and, occasionally, chamber music appearances, until her retirement in 2003. She was, as always, self-conscious about her size. In the mid-1990s she complained that she was shrinking: by 1995 her height was only 4-foot-5, and where her small hand had been able to reach the interval of a 10th in her heyday, she was by then able to reach only a 9th, which limited her repertory somewhat. But over all her technique never failed her, nor did her sense of color, especially in the twin pillars of her repertory, Spanish music and Mozart. She continued to earn glowing reviews.”
- Allan Kozinn, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 25 Sept., 2009