Piano Recitals: Alicia de Larrocha and Paul Crossley; Queen's Hall

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The Independent Culture
We tend to like our legends to come across like legends, and that is exactly what Alicia de Larrocha did, from the moment of her stately entry, in her recital of Spanish music early on in the festival. What is more, she really did play like a legend, delighting a full house with her clarity and rhythmic poise. The Soler sonatas, little more than warm-up material, she endowed with a dignity belying their scale. When it came to the mysterious Mompou, her dedication to the works of this still-neglected composer, a personal friend, was evident in the intense, sostenuto projection of the melodies and the sensitive rubato phrasing. Pieces like Pajaro triste (Sad bird) and Cuna (Berceuse) typified the haunting simplicity of Mompou's musical vision, while the Cancos i Danses featured traditional Catalan tunes and dances in which we heard flashes of a more flamboyant side to this pianist's style - something that was given fuller rein in the Preludio No 7, dedicated to Larrocha herself. The rather more forthright music of De Falla provided a perfect foil to Mompou, although here, too, there was a strain of passion and mystery, surely reflecting the distinctive regional cultures and musical traditions of Spain. The amazing Fantasia betica, a large-scale tribute to De Falla's native Andalusia, rounded off the recital to storms of applause. The overall impression of De Larrocha's playing was one of a glorious inevitability achieved through immense discipline.

Fascinating, then, to compare her concert with the two Ravel programmes given by Paul Crossley. A slight stiffness in the opening Pavane of his first recital (14 Aug) - perhaps attributable to having to begin at the unearthly hour of 11am? - soon gave way to a powerful, nervous energy in the astonishing "Barque sur l'ocean" and "Alborada del Gracioso" from Miroirs, balanced by a darker, melancholic effect in "Oiseaux tristes" and a brilliantly managed fade to silence in "La Vallee des cloches". The cascades of notes in Jeux d'eau still left Crossley with energy for the more precise, chaste gestures of the later neo-classical works, culminating in Le Tombeau de Couperin. Even here, though, the dark, edgy undertones of Ravel's imagination, and the agonised touches which this pianist is expert in bringing out, were evident.

The second Crossley recital, last Tuesday, gave further evidence of this side of Ravel, especially in the veiled effects and wild outbursts of La Valse, and the dissonant, abrupt harmonies of Valses nobles et sentimentales. If De Larrocha's approach is one of clarity and restrained passion, Crossley's is more "transcendental" - a sort of ploughing through a metaphysical murk of technical virtuosity towards some desirable but never completely attainable goal. Which is perhaps what Ravel was ultimately all about. This latter quality was most powerful in the almost demonic, haunted world of the concluding Gaspard de la nuit. It was something of a shock, then, when the pianist had to announce an end to proceedings before the last section, "Scarbo", pleading ill-health. The ovation he received was appropriate to what would have been a magnificent performance in normal circumstances, and was downright extraordinary in these.