It was heady times for pianophiles in the 1980's. The grand age of Romantic Piano was coming to its end with a Lisztian bang. And the bang was dominated by three pianists still near the top of their respective games in their mid-eighties, each representing the last vestige of a different dying tradition.
In the late 1980's, Vladimir Horowitz was arguably in better pianistic shape than he was at any time since the early 50's. When Horowitz died in late 1989, the age of Anton Rubinstein, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and Scriabin died with him. He was the last vestige of Russian pianism before the Revolution with its particular combination of elegance and volatility. The Soviet pianists after Horowitz could match him in temperament, but none of them could wed Horowitz's passion to his natural elegance.
One year older than Horowitz, Rudolf Serkin was nearly every bit the pianist at eighty that he was at thirty. The son-in-law of the great violinist Adolf Busch, the younger contemporary of Artur Schnabel and Wilhelm Backhaus and a favored colleague of Arnold Schonberg, Serkin represented the last active link with the middle-class German traditions of chamber music, wide reading and bildung (though Wilhelm Kempff survived him in retirement). Serkin was the last pianistic link to an era in which German families would play Beethoven and Brahms for each other in drawing rooms. As a teacher Serkin mentored three generations of pianists and to this day generations of pianists he taught honor his legacy by playing the German classics with the same rigor and intensity he brought.
Serkin's exact contemporary in birth and death, Claudio Arrau, was Chilean by origin. But Arrau came from a tradition just as German as Serkin's and every bit as extinct. If Serkin was reared in the middle-class traditions of Brahms and Busch, Arrau came from the upper-class traditions of Liszt and Furtwangler. Arrau's music-making had a self-concious probity no other pianist would dare. No other pianist of the recorded era would chance to play the classics with Arrau's flexibility of tempo or disregard for written dynamics (not even his disciple, Daniel Barenboim). Arrau aimed not for Serkin's rigor but to endow music with all the weight of German philosophy. Every moment of Arrau's playing seemed to be an attempt to bend the listener's sense of time and space. Music-making has rarely been as 'heavy' an experience as it was in his hands.
While all three pianists still played around the world in their mid-eighties, their technique seemed fundamentally indestructable until the end (though Horowitz and Arrau had many off-nights). As they played on, a slew of slightly younger pianists seemed to find it excruciating to cope with the octogenarian onslaught. Among the Eastern Europeans: Emil Gilels, Gina Bachauer and Geza Anda all died early. Mieczyslaw Horoszowski and Shura Cherkassky seemed content to stay out of Horowitz's limelight, and Sviatoslav Richter confined his appearances to festivals. The entirety of th German-speaking lands did not produce an heir to Serkin until Alfred Brendel reached maturity and Arrau fans had to wait even longer for the maturation of Daniel Barenboim. Great American pianists seemed to appear at the speed of light: William Kapell, Julius Katchen, Leon Fleischer, Gary Graffman, Byron Janis, Van Cliburn - and yet every one of them seemed to die or burn out as quickly as they appeared. And that's not even mentioning Glenn Gould to the North... Maurizio Pollini was at his peak as he was twenty years before and still is twenty years later - playing the piano to an unassailable technical standard with barely any hint of a beating heart behind it.
With all these pianistic casualties, only two pianists the world over seemed to be able to compete with the old men on their own terms. Both were Spanish-speaking women, but there similarities end.
The Argentinian Martha Argerich was still only in her forties. Critics never seemed to tire of using words like 'volcanic' and 'smoldering' to describe her playing of the great Romantic works. Physically beautiful and forever rumored to be as tempestuous in her private affairs as she was in her pianism, her performances electrified crowds in every city. Like Horowitz, she seemed to carry an aura of instability and danger that magnetized audiences. Like Arrau and Horowitz, she overwhelmed her public with the enormity of her conceptions more than she did with the rightness of them. To this day her playing can be as wrong-headed as any great pianist in history, but her pianism was as unmistakable within a few notes as it is now.
But the Spaniard Alicia De Larrocha was Argerich's antipode in every way. Physically diminutive, Laroccha looked like a diminutive grandmother who couldn't possibly manage the piano's physical demands, and in a way she played exactly how she looked. Hers was the playing of a master who never tried to inundate the audience with pyrotechnics. Never especially intense or fiery, never prone to exaggerated phrasing or distended tempos, Laroccha's playing was elegance personified. She seemed to traipse onto the stage, blithely unaware of audience's expectations and played in a manner that seemed unaware there was an audience to play for.
In Larrocha's playing, proportion was the key: Every note articulated perfectly in proportion to the phrase in which it came, every phrase exactly right in proportion to the phrases around it and through it whole movements built with the efficacy of a master builder. Every tempo was perfectly chosen, and every tempo modification applied so judiciously to be unnoticeable. And all of that coupled with a touch to the piano that endowed Steinways worldwide with the most beautiful sound since Artur Rubinstein.
In the words of her manager, Herbert Breslin, "Alicia has two kinds of repertoire. The stuff she plays extremely well, and the stuff she plays better than anyone else." So it should come as no surprise that a pianist of such supernal elegance would be the undisputed Mozart pianist of her generation. But in the span of a concert she could go from making Mozart sound more pellucid than ever to making the music of her countrymen resound with swagger and abandon. Rubinstein and Barenboim have played Spanish music with more fire, but not even they could make it sound as natural, as "Spanish," and however she did that was her secret.
Pianists like Alicia De Larrocha are not supposed to be superstars. The kind, polite pianist who plays music like an eloquent conversation is not supposed to fill Carnagie Hall half a dozen times over. And yet in her era of giants, Alicia De Larrocha found an enormous place in music for intimacy and refinement. She was the most beloved pianist of an era and (with all due respect to the fine Maria Joao Pires) no heir has yet arrived to conjure up her particular breed of pianism for another generation.