Fort Worth — Joachín Achúcarro is one of the most charming pianists to grace a local stage in a while. His Romantic approach to the works of Brahms and Schumann—the featured composers for this year’s PianoTexas Festival—are clearly demonstrated not only by his playing, but also by his explanatory remarks for each piece. As part of the PianoTexas Festival at Texas Christian University, his recital was one of many performances that bring pianists and chamber musicians of the highest caliber to Fort Worth each summer to teach master classes, perform recitals, and in all respects create an outstanding musical experience for student pianists, performers, and audiences alike.
Achúcarro will turn 84 this year, and he might not have the pianistic agility he once had. Indeed, the recital seemed to physically tire him, since he walked onto the stage ably, but limped off for the first of many curtain calls. Also, the Steinway piano he used seemed to have been adjusted improperly, with at least one hammer not hitting the string correctly. These signs of human and pianistic infirmity signaled a mixed bag of a recital, one that featured three encores but also a fair share of missed notes and quirky dynamic choices.
Achúcarro began the evening with 16 Variations on a Theme of Schumann Op. 9, by Johannes Brahms. He noted that this piece reflected not only Brahms’s admiration of his friend and fellow composer Robert Schumann, but also Clara Schumann, Robert’s wife, a concert pianist and composer in her own right. Although Achúcarro pointed out that Variation 10 is the “Clara Variation,” featuring one of her musical themes, that was not quite enough. He overemphasized it in his performance, too, as if to make sure we did not miss it.
Frequently throughout the recital, dynamics hovered between mezzo piano and mezzo forte, with phrases occasionally culminating in startling fortissimo crashes.
This was both the strength and the weakness of the recital. While Achúcarro’s insights into music he has embodied for decades are valuable, this was the recital of a pianist who might not have the facility he once had; still, his technique is strong and his musical wisdom unimpeachable.
The remainder of the first half of Achúcarro’s program included more Brahms—the Rhapsody in G minor, Op. 79 No. 2 and the Klavierstücke, Op. 119 and the second half included Schumann’s Fantasy in C major, Op. 17. These selections featured the same strengths and difficulties as the Brahms Variations. At least one audience member speculated that perhaps a piano technician would be made available at intermission to adjust the ailing Steinway, but alas, that was not the case, so its difficulties continued through the Schumann as well as all three Brahms pieces.
The moderately sized audience expressed enough delight in Achúcarro’s performance that he performed three encores; at the end of the third, he closed the fallboard with a grin. Prior to this moment, though, it seemed almost like a moment from The Red Shoes, as if he could not, or dared not, quit playing.
As is so often the case with performers who are called “legends,” the audience is there to see the artist as much as hear the music. While Achúcarro was doubtless more technically proficient a half-century ago, his charm and musical wisdom remain, a rare gift.