Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Mozart, Ravel, Schubert, Schumann and others
Alicia de Larrocha (piano)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
London Sinfonietta
L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Sergiu Comissiona
Charles Dutoit
Lawrence Foster
Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos
David Zinman


Recorded between 1970 and 1983
CD No: DECCA 473 813-2 (7 CDs)
Duration:
Reviewed: July 2003
It’s hard to believe that this wonderful pianist has turned 80! Decca’s handsome celebration of Alica de Larrocha’s refined, thoughtful and perceptive craft – the seven CD envelopes personalised with ’through the ages’ pictures of her – has been well arranged in that it begins with Bach and ends with Ravel. These composers flank generous amounts of Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Schubert, Liszt, Schumann, Khachaturian (even!) and climaxes, as it were, with the Spanish repertoire that Larrocha has done so much for.
Larrocha’s first public performance was when she was aged 6. One notes with sadness that she has now retired from concert-giving (with effect from her 80th-birthday season). How valuable her recordings suddenly become. This compendium gives a good overview of her musical taste and her aesthetic way with it.
One could suggest that some retardation in the ’Presto’ of Bach’s Italian Concerto halts the flow to no great purpose, but this must be set aside an overall reading of unimpeachable clarity and feeling. It’s that emotional candour that brings alive the E major French Suite in such a special way. So too the Harriet Cohen arrangements – playing that in its straightforward devotion leaves one with head bowed – and Busoni’s of the Chaconne from the D minor violin Partita. The first CD is completed by two concertos – Bach’s F minor (BWV 1056) and Haydn’s D major, the one with the ’Hungarian’ finale – both slightly perfunctory and, in the Bach, with a rather ’heavy’ accompaniment from the Sinfonietta and David Zinman; something more stylish is provided for Haydn. The concerto recordings are unhelpful in distancing all concerned.
CD 2 begins with more Haydn, a searching account of the F minor Andante and Variations and progresses with two Mozart sonatas (K331 & K576), both intimately shared and with no lack of bravura, K331’s ’Turkish Rondo’ delightfully unblemished. There’s a charming simplicity to Beethoven’s Op.33 Bagatelles and chiselled articulacy for Mendelssohn’s Variations sérieuses.
Chopin occupies CD 3, the 24 Preludes (Op.28) first-off, a poetically espoused version, fleet of finger when required, harmoniously sounded elsewhere, false pyrotechnics never on Larrocha’s agenda. A beguiling account of the Berceuse acts as a link to the F minor concerto (No.2), Sergiu Comissiona and the Suisse Romande Orchestra sympathetic partners to Larrocha’s richly sculpted account that gives the music a strength of purpose without denuding its reverie.
The next disc includes one of my most wanted transfers to CD – Larrocha’s 1983 account of Schubert’s final sonata, the B flat. Hers is a flowing, unsentimental view, light of hand, yet with no lack of identification. Throughout, her thoughtful shaping and considered weight of sound, which might bring charges of enervation in some quarters, never fails to engage or convey bittersweet emotions. Larrocha’s is the antithesis of Richter’s (perfectly valid) distended valediction; Larrocha has her own way of withdrawing – and it compels attention. She observes the long repeat in the first movement. Schubert’s A flat Impromptu (D899/4) acts as a capricious bridge to Liszt’s B minor sonata, which, while not always off the leash as it might be, is architecturally sound and satisfyingly long-viewed. It grows into an absorbing account, majestic, incisive and with no lack of rhetoric, itself a natural concomitant of the music.
Schumann’s Fantasy (Op.17) and Liszt’s Sonata are reciprocally dedicated (and originally on the same Larrocha LP as I recall). Larrocha opens the Schumann with Romantic ardour, such spontaneity true to the composer. The treacherously difficult middle movement is amazingly negotiated – Larrocha has small hands yet somehow gets all the notes in and still makes music! The closing slow movement is mellifluous. This all-Schumann fifth CD includes a commanding account of the strangely ambiguous B minor Allegro (Op.8) and a gentle one of the Romance, Op.28/2. In both, Larrocha catches the improvisatory nature of Schumann’s heartfelt utterances. Of Schumann’s concerto, her opening entrance seems no more than accurate; fortunately she and Charles Dutoit blossom the music very favourably, with a mix of vigour and reflection that reflects the first movement’s original cast as a ’fantasia’ – a strange one-second scrunching noise at 4’11” aside! The RPO’s woodwinds provide poetic solos. This time-taken account from 1981 had a 1991 successor with the LSO and Colin Davis for RCA. The two versions are similar in outline; the earlier one enjoys an even more fluent Finale – poised and unforced, detail beguilingly touched-in.
Disc 6 is the Spanish one, an enjoyable cross-section beginning with three of Soler’s Scarlatti-like sonatas, played with affection, and a crispness that befits the harpsichord originals. We jump a couple of centuries to Turina, his delightfully off-centre Zapateado, which one immediately wants to play again. Music by Granados (charming and vibrant Spanish Dances, and El pelele), Montsalvatge (the whimsical Sonatina para Yvette), Mompou (an intimate tribute to Alicia herself) and Albéniz (the famous Tango and Book 1 of Iberia). The latter is rendered as subtle as it is lively, notational complexities absorbed. Completing this CD is Falla’s Fantasia bética, quite a favourite in competitions, where it is usually bashed out. Not here! Larrocha finds sultry colours with which to persuade.
More Falla to begin the final disc, Nights in the Gardens of Spain, orchestrally superb under Comissiona. In 1971 the Suisse Romande Orchestra was in the wake of its Ernest Ansermet half-century (the orchestra’s founder had died in 1969) and it responds to Falla’s glinting rhythms with all the expertise and appreciation previously in-built by the great Ansermet. Larrocha’s contribution may be taken as read. Khachaturian’s concerto is a bombastic piece of no great shakes. It has it moments … and maybe Larrocha identifies with some of the folksy derivations; yet, even with Frühbeck conducting, this is an overwrought and noisy piece. Ravel’s Left Hand Concerto rounds things off, Lawrence Foster’s punctilious conducting a pluspoint. Larrocha is inside the personal world that the solo part occupies, especially the culminating cadenza, which is movingly expressive, and she also acknowledges the sinister, subterranean world of the menacing central march, contrasting ruminations into nostalgia touchingly innocent.
Recording quality is generally excellent – excepting the two Cohen Bach arrangements and Busoni’s of the Chaconne, which suffer a colourless piano, and the latter’s first note sounds a hairsbreadth clipped. Overall, this is a handsome collection that serves well one of the most unostentatious of musicians – no media circus, just the music. Such artistry is worth celebrating.

 

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