Eighty-six this year (in November), the legendary Basque Spanish pianist Joaquín Achúcarro brings something of the old-world weight and charisma of the trans-Atlantic heroes of the pre-/post-war period – Rubinstein, Horowitz, Cherkassky, Iturbi, Bolet, Arrau. This recital – lyrical more than leonine, never a crude moment, curtained in velvet warmth – played to Achúcarro's strengths. He's a poet of the instrument whom it's a privilege to hear.
From the outset his priorities were clear. A contained, intimate dynamic range; drawn-out cadences caressed into darkness; an infinite awareness of subsidiary voices, drawing quiet attention to melodic strands that leaned into focus before fading into the background. Correspondingly, a concern for ornamentation and the shaping of phrase-offs emphasising clarity of speech, not a note hurried or bumped; a sensual, voluptuous feeling for low fundamentals and the tenor register; and a sophistication and subtlety of pedalling that, compensating for the testingly dry acoustic of the room, transformed the octaves of the house Steinway (despite its 'splintering glass' top end) into a fabulous, resonant cast of characters and singers. At many levels this was a masterclass in imagination and interpretation, Achúcarro drawing on a lifetime of encounters and experiences to give us tinted cameos from another age, lingering emotions perfuming time and silence, fragments of memory held in a mirror before being laid to rest.
Itemising the good and bad points of a performance can make for dull reading, more often than not (as Wilhelm Kempff used to caution his students) losing sight of whatever grander overview an artist might want to convey. Achúcarro has thought long and deeply about how he sees Chopin's Preludes. Notwithstanding the span (and separation) of their composition, they amount for him to a single “monumental work” comprising disparate moods and psychological states. The pacing and rubato of V, VII, VIII, IX, XIII and XXIII, the sense of syntax rather than the clock determining tempo, left a haunting impression. The D-flat ‘Raindrop’ (XV) journeyed a private, sad dream too fragile to hold. Now urgent, now ebbing, the chords and chime-tones of the A-flat (XVII), echoing to the Angelus bells of churches beyond, rhymed oddly with the freshening winds of an incoming Mediterranean storm – Majorca, Winter 1838-39, one could almost fancy.
The second half was devoted to Debussy, with Falla's Homenaje, quoting from ‘La soirée dans Grenade’, serving as an interludial “Thank you for the music, farewell my friend” habanera-tombeau. Trailing a path between precision and impression, creating sketches and pictures, Achúcarro offered the kind of playing he's celebrated for, dazzling the ear and teasing belief with an infinitely rich panoply of images, colours, rhythms and nuances. The smoky languor of Las plus que lente – Debussy's “numberless five-o'clock teas where assemble the beautiful audiences I've dreamed of” – glimpsed the Paris of an old film. On its own ‘La soirée dans Grenade’, quite differently from Richter, was of water-coloured arabesques of moonlight seen through veils of muslin, each melody-note, each harmony, placed to fragrant expressive effect, the sound touched and clasped. Reflecting the firework festa city that's been Valletta this past weekend, ‘Feux d'artifice’, closing Book II of the Préludes, spun its fantasy – that magical 'Marsellaise' quote at the end, heard from afar, leaving us suspended, holding our breath, a master of the keyboard, sitting high, the alchemist of the hour.
Ornamented to perfection, the two Opus 9 Nocturne encores – Scriabin's for the left-hand and the Chopin E-flat – were sweet-toothed and simply delivered, yet glowed and trembled with tenderness and grande amour. Diamonded, endlessly breathed, deeply private.