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Alicia de Larrocha
Alicia de Larrocha

Pianist Mitsuko Uchida’s latest Mozart recording — the 23rd and 24th concertos — landed on my desk Monday. She’s accompanied by the Cleveland Orchestra, continuing a partnership which has lasted well beyond her 2002 – 2007 residency with the orchestra.

Though I never expect to see Mitsuko Uchida at the keyboard of a classical fortepiano, or playing in front of the Academy of Ancient Music, her career trajectory has in some ways paralleled that of the Historically Informed Performance (HIP) movement. She was winning prizes in the early 1970s, at about the time the (modern) Academy of Ancient Music played its first concerts. Her New York debut was in 1985, the same year that Cleveland’s Early Music America was founded.

I went straight to the second movement of her Mozart 24th, that gorgeous, wistful respite Mozart gave us between the dense, dark outer movements of his c-minor concerto. As I listened to Uchida’s lucid, gentle, and thoroughly unsentimental playing, I opened my computer’s web browser and discovered that another great Mozart interpreter had left this world.

Alicia de Larrocha, who died last Friday (25 September 2009) in Barcelona, her birthplace, came from the generation before Uchida’s. Make no mistake, she brought to the table much of her own generation’s musical sensibility. When she recorded the Beethoven concertos in the mid-1980s, for example, she didn’t play Beethoven’s own cadenzas. She used the late-Romantic-era cadenzas of Carl Reinecke – the ones she grew up playing.

She wasn’t particularly glamorous, and she was rather shy. But by God she could play the piano.

          – Herbert Breslin

The world recognizes de Larrocha for pushing Spanish keyboard music into the Classical mainstream. To name only one example, a quick glance at one of the online CD retailers shows nearly 4 dozen current recordings of the Suite Iberia by Isaac Albeniz, a cycle she first recorded in the late 1950s. Would there be half as many choices today, had she not championed the work? If she’d accomplished nothing else, that would have been enough.

She performed and recorded plenty of full-bore romantic music — Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Liszt. But it’s for her Mozart that I remember Alicia de Larrocha best. Well before the HIP movement, she was infusing Mozart (and Haydn and Beethoven) with a luminous delicacy that few other pianists could match.

So what am I leading up to here? That Mitsuko Uchida is heir to a mantle that Alicia de Larrocha wore, one with a badge that says "Mozart Pianist"? Not at all. Both of them would have to share that garment with too many other fine pianists.

But I do think we should remember de Larrocha as part of that generation of musicians who rethought the way we approach early music. She wasn’t a Steven Lubin or a Gustav Leonhardt, of course. That wasn’t her way. But she still helped lay the groundwork for a kind of music making that assigns great importance to discovering and communicating not just the musician’s own interpretation of the music – though that’s vital – but also the composer’s intent.

She will be missed.

So what about that Mozart concerto, the one Mitsuko Uchida has just released? Alicia de Larrocha recorded it too, for RCA, back in 1991, with Colin Davis and the English Chamber Orchestra. Do the two recordings help us draw a line from the older pianist to the younger? Not on your life! All it takes is a few bars of that middle movement to telegraph how differently she and Mitsuko Uchida viewed Mozart and his 24th concerto. Bravo for that – we’re richer for having both. Listen for yourself.

Mozart 24 with de Larrocha Mozart 24 - Uchida
Alicia de Larrocha Mitsuko Uchida

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Further reading:

Alicia de Larrocha Obituary at New York Times (registration may be required)

Alicia de Larrocha at the Daily Telegraph

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2 Responses to “Alicia de Larrocha, 1923-2009”

  1. Amanda Says:

    This is so sad..but fortunately, her life will live on through the music she performed.

  2. JoanneT Says:

    Her music is truly timeless and she left us a great gift.

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