Alicia de Larrocha

September 26, 2009

Alicia de Larrocha, Pianist, Dies at 86

Alicia de Larrocha, the diminutive Spanish pianist esteemed for her elegant Mozart performances and regarded as an incomparable interpreter of Albéniz, Granados, Mompou and other Spanish composers, died on Friday evening in a hospital in Barcelona. She was 86.

Her death was confirmed by Gregor Benko, a piano historian, record producer and family friend. He said she had been in declining health since breaking her hip two years ago.

In a career that began when she was a child — she made her concert debut 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 concertos, including those of Liszt and Rachmaninoff, and she could produce a surprisingly large, beautifully sculptured sound.  […]

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’s “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.  […]

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.  […]

“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.”  […]

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.

When she played her final Carnegie Hall performance — the chamber version of Mozart’s Concerto No. 12 in A (K. 414), with the Tokyo String Quartet, in November 2002 — The New York Times reported that, “The small details — the trills and turns that adorn the score — as well as the more expansive pianism in the cadenzas and the glowing Andante, had considerable energy behind them.”

The review continued: “Her performance had the bright, light quality that she brought to her playing in the ’70s, when her appearances at the Mostly Mozart Festival were among the highlights of New York summers. If anything, her approach to Mozart on Monday was more fluid, more carefully nuanced than it was then.”