By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 27, 2009
Alicia de Larrocha, 86, a pianist with a poetic touch who made hundreds of recordings and helped introduce the music of her native Spain to audiences worldwide, died Sept. 25 at a hospital in Barcelona. She had been in failing health since breaking her hip two years ago.
Ms. de Larrocha was a diminutive woman who stood only 4 feet 9 inches tall, but for decades she was a towering figure in classical music, bringing an elegant restraint to her interpretations of composers as diverse as Johann Sebastian Bach and Manuel de Falla. She appeared with leading orchestras and chamber groups around the globe and won an even larger audience with her many recordings.
Her interpretations of de Falla and other Spanish composers such as Enrique Granados, Isaac Albeniz and Federico Mompou were considered definitive and prompted Washington Post music critic Paul Hume to crown her "the unchallenged monarch of Spanish piano music."
Ms. De Larrocha was equally renowned for her performances from the standard classical repertoire, including works by Ludwig van Beethoven, Frederic Chopin, Robert Schumann and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and made more than 80 appearances at New York's Mostly Mozart Festival.
Because of her small stature and short arms, Ms. de Larrocha seemingly sat right on top of the keyboard, her face a mask of quietly focused concentration. She resisted exaggerated gestures and used the piano's foot pedals, which sustain or dampen musical tones, as little as possible. Instead, she cultivated a graceful, cleanly articulated approach with no wasted movements.
In 1966, the New York Times's notoriously hard-to-please critic Harold C. Schonberg wrote that she was "pianistically flawless, with infallible fingers, brilliant sonorities, steady rhythm, everything. . . . She is a wonderful pianist, and more: She is an artist."
Before she retired in 2003, Ms. de Larrocha often presented more than 100 concerts a year and had an indefatigable work ethic. In 1989, when she was 66, she performed all five Beethoven piano concertos, plus Albeniz's difficult solo work, "Iberia," in less than five days at the Ravinia festival outside Chicago.
"I never think of what I am going to do next -- never," she told the Chicago Tribune in 1989. "I only know that if I stay in one place for more than a week, I become restless. I must move."
Through the years, she collaborated with conductors Michael Tilson Thomas, Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos and Sir Colin Davis, with the Guarneri and Tokyo string quartets and with her childhood friend, operatic soprano Victoria de los Angeles. Ms. de Larrocha won two Grammy Awards and countless other honors and maintained homes in Switzerland, New York and Barcelona, but she professed not to care about prizes or fame.
"I never lifted one single finger to be successful," she said. "I only played the piano."
Alicia de Larrocha y de la Calle was born May 23, 1923, in Barcelona and began to pick out tunes on the piano at 2. Her mother and aunt had studied with Granados (1867-1916), perhaps Spain's best-known composer, and Ms. de Larrocha was captivated by his music when she was 4.
"There opened before me a new world of poetry and dreams," she told Time magazine in 1967. "I had the sensation that this music formed part of myself, and now I would never be able to free myself from its influence."
Her teacher, however, insisted that she study the works of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven and would not allow her to play Spanish music until she was 15.
"This is a necessary base for a pianist," Ms. de Larrocha later said. "Spanish music is very, very, very hard. . . . If you cannot play Bach and Mozart well, you cannot play Spanish music well."
By the age of 5, she had given her first public recital, and she was performing throughout Spain in her early teens. In 1947, she gave concerts across Europe, and she made her American debut in 1954.
In 1950, she married Juan Torra, a piano teacher who stayed home in Barcelona to run their music conservatory and care for their two children while Ms. de Larrocha went on tour. Her husband died in 1982; a son and daughter survive her.
Ms. de Larrocha believed music was meant to be heard, not seen, and disliked having her concerts filmed. Partly for that reason, tickets to her farewell tour of 2002 and 2003 were coveted by music fans around the world. By all accounts, her talents had not faded with time.
"My only purpose is to make music," she said. "My life and my nutrition come from music -- that is all."