On Friday, the Fort Worth Symphony presented us with an opportunity to hear a performance by Joaquin Achúcarro, the 85-year-old Basque Spanish born pianist. He has been on the faculty of Southern Methodist University since the 1980’s. Combined with the orchestra’s Peruvian-born music director Miguel Harth-Bedoya on the podium, the all-Spanish program was appropriate.
For those used to high-energy pianists playing virtuoso works such as Rachmaninoff concerti, Achúcarro might have been a disappointment. Neither piece he played is a concerto. Manuel de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain and Albéniz’s Rapsodia Española feature a piano soloist, with extensive and challenging music to play, but is a part of the orchestra. (A similar work is Vincent D’Indy’s Symphony on a French Mountain Air.)
Such pieces are perfectly suited to Achúcarro’s low-key approach. A word that keeps coming up describing his playing is “poetic” and those in attendance on Friday can understand why. To that, I would add the words “clean” and “elegant” and the phrase “precise technical mastery without resorting to bravura.”
In both pieces, he demonstrated a beautiful tone, even in the loudest parts, and the ability to spin a legato line on what is basically a percussion instrument. Mostly, he plays with a textbook hand position with curved fingers and the top of his hands flat. However, he changed his hand position as the situation required.
Best of all, he was always involved in the music. You could tell by his body language that he was in the musical soup even when he didn’t have anything to play. By contrast, many pianists appear to be waiting for, or thinking about, their next entrance.
The de Falla is a set of musical pictures of famous gardens. Achúcarro was at his best in the last movement entitled “En los jardines de la Sierra de Córdoba” (“In the Gardens of the Sierra de Córdoba”). The complexities are derived from the folk music of the Sufi people.
Albéniz’s piece is a true rhapsody, defined as a single-movement freeform work that can go anywhere and is marked by changing colors, thematic materials and moods. Such works are also written to sound improvisatory and Achúcarro’s performance caught that style perfectly. However, this piece was not as effective as the de Falla. All the elements were there and the contrasts were well defined and well played, but they were not all connected into a whole, a known problem with the form.
Both pieces received evocative performances as befits such impressionistic music.
Acknowledging the spontaneous standing ovation, Achúcarro played an encore. While not Spanish-influenced, Scriabin’s Nocturne for Left Hand cast an impressionistic spell. In his typical laid-back approach, you could immerse yourself in the Nocturne without constantly being amazed by the gymnastics required to play it with only one hand. It was the high point of the concert.
The second half of the program started out with Granados’ Intermezzo from his opera Goyescas. This was the weakest performance of the evening. All the pizzicato chords in the strings were not together and that is so noticeable. There were also some sloppy entrances in the brass. Harth-Bedoya praised its beauties before the performance but, while enjoyable, it was hardly on the top of my bucket list.
The program ended with some music by a French composer writing Spanish-influenced music. Debussy’s Iberia was the only work universally recognized as a masterpiece on the program. All the composer’s flashing colors, exotic harmonies and use of motives rather than long melodic material were evident in this performance—all dressed up with Spanish garb. It received a fine performance from conductor and orchestra but a quickly approached ending brought the concert to a sudden close.