Page last updated at 15:15 GMT, Saturday, 26 September 2009 16:15 UK

Renowned pianist de Larrocha dies

Alicia de Larrocha
Alicia de Larrocha at the Alice Tully Hall in New York, 1978

Spanish pianist Alicia de Larrocha, a child prodigy who went on to become one of the greatest musicians of her era, has died aged 86.

The petite pianist, who measured just under five foot (1.52m), won praise for her technique and judgement of tempo.

As well as her performances of Mozart and Rachmaninov, she was regarded as unrivalled in her interpretation of Spanish composers like Isaac Albeniz.

De Larrocha retired six years ago, after 75 years of public performances.

"She was an extraordinary ambassador for Spain," Culture Minister Angeles Gonzalez-Sinde said in a news release following the announcement of her death.

The Barcelona Symphony Orchestra was due to hold a minute's silence before this weekend's performances in honour of the pianist.

Spanish ban

Born in Barcelona in 1923, de Larrocha began playing at the age of two.

She gave her first recital aged six, and made her orchestral debut when she was 11, performing as a soloist for the Madrid Symphony Orchestra.

Although famed as a champion of Spanish music, her teacher Frank Marshall forbade her to play it before she was 15.

"It was Bach and Mozart that I played," she later recalled. "This is a necessary base for a pianist. You cannot play Spanish music without it.

"Spanish music is very, very, very hard. Young people come to me and think they can play it right away. But Spanish music must have the right rhythm, just as Bach and Mozart must have the right rhythm.

"If you cannot play Bach and Mozart well, you cannot play Spanish music well."

Her teenage years were overshadowed by the Spanish Civil War. Her family remained in Barcelona, but food was scarce, and de Larrocha later described how her father had to travel to the "mountains to get greens to eat".

She resumed giving recitals in Spain once the war ended, displaying a style and skill that transcended her age, but was she prevented from travelling to Europe by the outbreak of World War II.

It was 1947 before she would play outside her home country, and she made her British debut in 1953.

Two years later came her first trip to the United States at the invitation of famed conductor Alfred Wallenstein, and a tour with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

After this breakthrough, she gained recognition as one of the world's most outstanding pianists.

'No peers'

In 1959 she became director of Barcelona's Academia Marshall, where she had studied and tutored as a youngster.

By this time, her affinity with Spanish music was becoming more widely recognised, and her performances of Albeniz's Iberia and Granados's Goyescas won particular praise.

She recorded Iberia four times, and gave premieres of several Spanish works, including book four of Mompou's Musica Callada and Montsalvatge's Concierto Breve, which is dedicated to her.

"The fact is that in this repertoire, Larrocha really has no peer, and any of her versions are nearly always going to be first choice," wrote Jonathan Summers in his A-Z of Pianists.

Over the years, de Larrocha was awarded numerous prizes, including the Prince of Asturias Prize in 1994, Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters in Paris in 1988 and the Paderewski Memorial Medal.

Her recordings earned her four Grammies and numerous other prizes.

In 1995, she complained to the New York Times that age was affecting her handspan - and thus her ability to play.

"I used to reach a 10th," she said, referring to the keyboard's gap from middle C to E in the octave above. "Now, a ninth, with some difficulty."

De Larrocha said this deficit could be heard across her various recordings of Granados' Goyescas. "The first and second record, you can hear the 10th," she said. "The third, no, because my hand is shrinking."

The pianist eventually retired in 2003, after some 4,000 concerts, at the age of 80.

Family friend Gregor Benko confirmed her death to the Associated Press news agency. He said de Larrocha had been in poor health for two years, since breaking her hip.

A spokesman for the Quiron hospital, where she was admitted some days ago, said she had died from cardiorespiratory failure shortly after 2300 (2200 BST) on Friday.

Married to the late pianist, Juan Torra, she leaves behind a son and a daughter.

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