Alicia de Larrocha: Pianist and teacher celebrated for her interpretations of Spanish compositions and of Mozart

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Alicia de Larrocha's stature as a pianist was in inverse proportion to her height: though a mere 4ft 9in she was universally acknowledged as the finest interpreter of Spanish music – especially Albéniz and Granados – and a superlative Mozart player. Herbert Breslin, her agent, said: "There are two kinds of repertory Alicia plays – things she plays extremely well, and things she plays better than anyone else".

Larrocha "was involved with music before I was born" she told Dudley Moore in the BBC series Concerto! in 1993. She wasn't exaggerating: her parents, Eduardo de Larrocha and Maria Teresa de la Calle were both pianists, as were her uncle and aunt; her mother and aunt, moreover, had been students of Granados, whose death in 1916 must still have been a recent memory. (He drowned in the English Channel, leaping into the water to save his wife after their boat was torpedoed.) The composer seems still to have been a presence in the Larrocha household: Alicia's father once jealously ripped up an autographed photograph of him.

Another Granados student, the highly respected, English-born Frank Marshall, had set up a school in Barcelona, the Academia Marshall, and Alicia's aunt taught there. She realised her niece showed unusual promise one day when, aged two, Alicia sat at the keyboard and played a Grieg Lyric Piece she had just heard performed by one of her aunt's pupils, managing to capture both the melody and the better part of the harmony.

Impressed, her aunt took her to Marshall, whose response might have deterred a less determined child: she was too young, he said, and should be kept away from the piano. When her aunt locked the instrument, Alicia banged her head on the floor until it bled – and Marshall, recognising her force of will, agreed to take her on as a student.

Her development was swift: she played her first public concert at five (a programme of Bach and Mozart at the International Exhibition in Barcelona in 1929), and made her concerto debut at 11, when she played Mozart Concerto No. 26, the "Coronation", with the Madrid Symphony Orchestra. She made her first recording two years earlier: she had been taken to sit in on a recording by the mezzo Conchita Supervia, who asked if she would like to record something. Alicia offered a Chopin nocturne and waltz; the recording has survived, revealing extraordinary musical maturity.

Her parents had no intention of exploiting their Wunderkind, and so she continued to study with Marshall (apart from during the Civil War, when fearing for his life, he left Spain). He kept her from the Spanish repertoire until her mid-teens, insisting on a solid grounding in the classics. It informed her attitude for the rest of her life: "If you can't play Bach correctly, you can't play Spanish music. The Spanish style is like Chopin mazurkas – free in the melody, but solid at the bottom."

This lack of pressure meant that her musical personality developed naturally; her first concert tour outside Spain (with dates in Paris, Geneva and Brussels) was not until 1947; before that she had had only a few isolated invitations. Her first performance in Britain was at the Wigmore Hall in 1953. For her US debut, in Los Angeles in 1955, she played the Mozart A major Concerto, K. 488, and Falla's Nights in the Garden of Spain. A New York recital, also in 1955, when she played Beethoven, Schumann, Albéniz, Gran-ados and Surinach, drew high praise from Harold C. Schonberg in The New York Times for her Spanish selection in particular: "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".

Larrocha's international career was none the less slow to start: when in 1959 Marshall died, she took over his school, sharing the directorship with Juan Torra, whom she had married the previous year. They had a son and a daughter, given the same names as their parents.

It was 10 years before she returned to the US, by which time her recordings for the Spanish label Hispavox had prepared the ground. Paul Myers, head of Epic Classics, licensed some of them, attracting the interest of Herbert Breslin, who secured her a concerto engagement with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Jean Martinon, performances with the New York Philharmonic and a New York recital with an all-Spanish programme. Asked why she had taken so long to come back she said: "Because nobody asked me." Breslin also persuaded her to sign a contract with Decca, where Myers recorded her in the Spanish music that had so impressed him in the first place.

She visited Britain regularly, too, playing at the Proms and in the Royal Festival Hall, where her recital programmes drew large audiences. Unfortunately, a project to record the 27 Mozart concertos with Colin Davis and the English Chamber Orchestra in the early 1990s never reached fruition. Her last British appearances came in 2000, in a concerto with the BBC Philharmonic in Manchester and a recital in the Wigmore Hall, where she had first played 47 years earlier.

Outside her Spanish specialities, her Mozart and Schumann were particularly admired. A less predictable recording – given her slight build – was the Third Rachmaninov Concerto (with André Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra), which has the reputation of being one of the most challenging concertos in the repertoire: Rachmaninov had preternaturally large hands, spanning a twelfth (around an octave and a half). But he rarely asks for more than a tenth in his concertos.

The American pianist Mac McClure, one of the few students of Larrocha's later years, found that her teaching and her playing were one: "She was really big on clarity of sound-layers and articulation and always said that if some little genius came along and wrote down the notes of what you were playing at a concert, a Chopin score should look like a Chopin score and not something you had thought up. We were interpreters, not composers."

He also said: "She treated music much the same whether practising, performing or teaching – it was 100 per cent dedication. She was very hard on herself, so you can imagine how she was on her few students. She was probably the most thorough musician I have ever met: she looked at things from all sides and no matter how many times she played a piece, she always sort of started from scratch. She had a complete historical awareness of the music she was playing and how that history could be brought out on a 20th-century concert grand."

She had "untold patience for explaining something," he added, "but once you said you got it, she never wanted to explain that again".

The big Albéniz and Granados suites, Ibéria (which she recorded four times) and Goyescas, and the Falla concerto Nights in the Gardens of Spain were her calling cards, but she also gave the first performances of Xavier Montsalvatge's Concierto breve (1953; it is dedicated to her) and of Book IV of Federico Mompou's Musica callada (1972).

Some of her chamber partnerships had a Spanish bias, too; she appeared with the sopranos Montserrat Caballé and Victoria de los Angeles, and the cellist Gaspar Cassadó. She also had regular associations with the Emerson, Guarneri and Tokyo Quartets.

Alicia de Larrocha was 80 when she retired from the public eye in 2003, which meant she had been giving concerts for exactly 75 years. Her large legacy of recordings means that her music-making, in all its passionate clarity, will continue to be heard for years to come.

Martin Anderson

Alicia de Larrocha y de la Calle, pianist: born Barcelona 23 May 1923; married 1958 Juan Torra (died 1982; one son, one daughter); died Barcelona 25 September 2009.

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