Obituary: Rafael Orozco

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The Spanish pianist Rafael Orozco was one of the most strikingly original talents to emerge on the international concert scene in the Sixties.

His earliest musical influences were his father and his aunt, from whom he received his first piano lessons. He was born in Crdoba in 1946; at 13 he entered the Conservatorio Superior in Madrid, and on graduating was fortunate to find in the Bulgarian pianist Alexis Weissenberg, who was then living in Spain, an outstanding teacher and mentor. Concerts in Spain and prizes at competitions there and in Italy followed, but it was not until 1966 when, at the age of 20, he won first prize at the Leeds International Piano Competition, that the possibility of making a world- wide career presented itself, and the following dec- ade saw him performing and recording extensively.

The years following a big break - as winning first prize at Leeds was in the Sixties - are full of pitfalls; new repertoire, particularly concertos, must be learnt quickly and then performed for the first time in the harsh critical light of the concert halls, then straight in to the recording studio where the results are compared favourably or otherwise with veterans and peers alike. It said much for Orozco's talent and dedication that he coped so superbly with these challenging fears. He always gave credit to Terry Harrison for managing his career so carefully at this time and to the Italian pianist and teacher Maria Curcio-Diamond for her unconditional support and outstanding musical advice. He appeared regularly with nearly all the major orchestras under conductors including Barenboim, Maazel, Muti, Previn, Chailly and Commissiona, but always singled out the many performances with Giulini in, amongst other places, London, Chicago, New York and Berlin, and at the Edinburgh Festival, as being of particular importance to him during these years.

Orozco had the most formidable command of the instrument, and on those occasions when everything fell into place the results were electrifying; the savage glitter of the Second Prokofiev Concerto suited him perfectly and he succeeded as few others in uncovering the musical and emotional polyphony of Rachmaninov's Third. This was pianism of great distinction and commitment; his seemingly limitless energy and steely-fingered articulation set him apart.

Orozco never really liked living in London, which was his base after winning Leeds, and in 1974 moved first to Paris then a few years later to Rome, where he settled in a beautiful apartment overlooking the Trevi fountain. He later felt that, although personally much happier, he had perhaps made the break with London too soon, and by the early Eighties, though still performing extensively, a quieter period in his professional life set in; though this may not have been by design, it finally gave him time to study and think more deeply about his playing, particularly of composers he had hitherto avoided - notably Schubert. The results were beautiful and the concerts and recordings from these last years form the high-point of his musical achievement. The international critical acclaim for the Schubert works (the posthumous B Flat Sonata and Wanderer Fantasia), Albeniz's Iberia and the complete piano music of Falla touched him and brought him great personal satisfaction.

It is these recordings together, perhaps, with the complete works for piano and orchestra of Rachmaninov, made earlier in his career, that will give future generations some idea of what made Rafael Orozco's playing special: pianistic refinement, colour, sensitivity to balance and pedalling, together with a remarkable ability to maintain control of a plethora of notes with elegance and what might seem like ease but was really the result of a very clear musical intelligence, concentration and hard work.

He was a delightful person - very Andalusian in both appearance and temperament - and a warm, generous and supportive colleague, as I personally experienced on many occasions. He listened to others with interest and perception, showing infectious joys and enthusiasm in front of good playing and a cool contempt for the second-rate and shabby that he felt was all too often offered to the public.

His final concerts were in Japan last November.

Peter Bithell

Rafael Orozco Flores, pianist: born Crdoba, Spain 24 January 1946; died Rome 24 April 1996.