A Little Hand for the Big Lady
Tisch Center for the Arts
Frederic Chopin: Nocturne in B Major, Op. 32 #1, Barcarolle in F Sharp Major, Op. 60, Berceuse in D Flat Major, OP. 57, Polonaise-Fantasie in A Flat Major, Op. 61
Joaquin Turina: Tres Danzas Fantasticas
Isaac Albeniz: La Vega, Navarra
Alicia de Larrocha (piano)
When Mieczyslaw Horszowski was a young soloist he was told that he would never have a brilliant career as a concert pianist because his hands were too small. He did eventually stop concertizing, but only after his 99th birthday. A similar condition affects the great Spanish pianist Alicia de Larrocha but she, like Horszowski, found a way early in her career to make her petiteness work for her. Firstly she is judicious in her choice of repertoire and the thunderous masterpieces of Liszt and Rachmaninoff were never a part of her musical universe. Secondly her touch has become so delicate and yet so clear that she can amazingly communicate the most poetic compositions of Chopin in a style remarkably similar to the historical record of his own (he was not a strong handed pianist either). The intimate tone of this gifted artist evokes the image of the Parisian salon and one can almost see Delacroix and Balzac, Hugo and Dumas, Rossini and Liszt draped over chairs in a reclining position listening in rapt attention to this melancholy bard laying bare his suffering soul.
Although just a nina compared to Horszowski, Madame de Larrocha is in her 75th year (70th of concert appearances) and the first half of her concert indicated her reflective nature. She sits down at the piano and immediately strikes the first note of each piece with no interlude of contemplation or preparation, indicating an immense confidence and familiarity with this repertoire. The choices of Chopin are telling. This is not a program of pretty nocturnes, heroic polonaises, pleasing waltzes and lively mazurkas but rather a meditational exploration of a period in Chopin's development when he began to contemplate the great mystery in large doses of wandering philosophy. Only his biggest supporter, Robert Schumann, wrote in this style and it is one not of showy virtuosity but quiet intellectualism. Ms. de Larrocha showed a genuine understanding of these difficult pieces, making her Barcarolle respond to the elemental rhythm of the sea (barca is Italian for boat) and her Berceuse rock in an even more gentle soporific manner.
The resultant atmosphere was hypnotic and one could easily forgive the occasional note not struck in the middle or the sometime lingering too long on a pedal as this was not only great poetry but a conception unlike most concert artists, wherein the totality of the poem took precedence over the individual prettiness of the phrases. Perhaps this is the conception that one acquires with elderly wisdom and may account for my thoughts of Horszowski who seemed to communicate in his later years on a higher plane of sublimity. The large audience was totally enchanted, sitting extremely quietly for a New York crowd, and heaping applause on this grand lady when it was their turn to express themselves.
Lest anyone have the impression that Madame was tired because of her choice of intimate rather than heroic Chopin, the second half of the recital left little doubt of her remarkable energy. The Tres Danzas Fantasticas are wild pieces with uniquely Andalusian rhythms (most like De Falla if you need a reference point) and this tiny pianist whipped them into a frenzy of syncopation and polyrhythmic complexity. There is a lot of hand crossing and a full eight octave range in the first dance and a rapid movement of wrists made up for the lack of finger stretch. Of course fans of Ms de Larrocha realize that this is her repertoire, as personally suited to her Catalan soul as was the music of Casals or, an even better example, Segovia. Anyone who has ever heard her play the Goyescas of Enrique Granados or Iberia of Albeniz knows that she is the owner of this specialized music and no one will ever play it so perfectly again.
When she came to Albeniz I realized that this was my one opportunity to hear this music as it should actually be played. Albeniz was a Catalan who shared a common heritage with this pianist, making his debut in Barcelona at the age of four (Madame did not give her first recital until she was 5) but then traveling the globe in search of new stimuli and exotic rhythmic combinations. It is interesting that Albeniz is often thought of in the rest of the world as a fine composer for the guitar (Asturias and Granada are intimately associated with this instrument) and yet he never actually composed a note for what he would have considered merely a folk vehicle. It was the masterful arrangements of Segovia which brought Albeniz to world fame. In La Vega Ms. de Larrocha emphasized the guitar-like strains in the left hand, a common trait of many of the pieces from the four books of Iberia. And the majesty of Navarra was masterfully communicated in the small hands of this authentic national treasure.
Madame played three encores, all Spanish, but it would have been rude to demand more (although we all did). This recital was very short in linear time, but ultimately tremendously satisfying, a Thanksgiving feast where we gorged ourselves on the bounty before us and are now left to contemplate the wonder of it all.
Frederick L. Kirshnit