James A. Altena
, November 2010
This DVD was produced in 2009 as a tribute to the Spanish pianist Joaquín Achúcarro, celebrating multiple anniversaries: his 80th birthday, his 50th wedding anniversary, the 50th anniversary of his professional debut in London (after winning the brief-lived Liverpool Competition earlier that year), and the 20th anniversary of his appointment to an endowed chair at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. According to his personal Web site, achucarro.com, he has performed with 349 conductors and 206 orchestras in 59 countries. While highly esteemed, he has remained somewhat limited in fame, being overshadowed by his late compatriot Alicia de Larrocha. His discography is fairly small; best known are his RCA recordings from the 1970s of music by Spanish composers (Albéniz, Falla, Granados, etc.), and works of Debussy and Ravel, though works by Bartók, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Schumann, and Mussorgsky are included as well.
Instead of a live performance before a concert audience, the concerto was recorded under studio conditions at a decommissioned parish church (St. Luke’s Middlesex), stripped down to a distressed brick interior. It appears that each movement, at least, was done in a single take. The performance itself is measured—deliberate, weighty, and earnest, with the humorous aspects of the second and fourth movements being rather subdued and the finale decidedly on the slow side. A slight interpretive idiosyncrasy is the appearance of Spanish rhythmic inflections during the first two movements, at about 11:00 and 23:00, respectively. Achúcarro plays with great concentration. He has rather chunky hands with short fingers—the very antipode of the spider-fingered Horowitz—that are powerful (including a thunderous left-hand bass) rather than agile, and now lack full facility in negotiating the denser passages. Colin Davis offers no original insights into the score, but neither does he indulge in any eccentricities; he is here precisely the kind of solid, able, deferential accompanist that many soloists covet in a conductor. The orchestral playing is excellent, with an exceptionally fine wind section (listen also to the exquisite blend of cello and oboe in the third movement). While I prefer a more fleet and dramatic account of this work, there is no gainsaying the integrity of the artistry here. The camerawork, video, and sound quality are all excellent, close up but not disconcertingly intrusive, with the Blu-ray version as usual providing higher resolution and crispness than does the regular DVD counterpart.
The filler pieces were recorded in the famed Prado Museum in Madrid; three Goya paintings—The Second of May, 1808; The Third of May, 1808; and Ferdinand VII in His Robes of State—are hanging on the walls in the background. The performances are stylistically and interpretively of a piece with that of the concerto, though Achúcarro’s rendition of the Chopin Prelude, op. 28/16, shows that he can still execute rapid passagework with fluency. For me, these pieces are somewhat less successful than the concerto performance, with the Brahms pieces in particular seeming somewhat labored. This may be due in part to the acoustic of the site, which is extremely reverberant and laden with echo.
The DVD also offers a 40-minute tribute to Achúcarro, including interview excerpts with the pianist; an undated film clip (probably c.1970, judging from his hair style) of Achúcarro playing a portion of Ravel’s Scarbo; and brief comments by his pianist-wife, Emma; Zubin Mehta; Simon Rattle; Plácido Domingo (with a snippet of Achúcarro accompanying Domingo and Montserrat Caballé in a zarzuela); and pianist Lucille Chung (an Achúcarro pupil and SMU faculty member, who with her husband, Alessio Bax, directs the Joaquin Achúcarro Foundation). Such filmed encomiums are often tedious, but I found this superior to the norm; particularly interesting are the pianist’s brief but insightful remarks on, and demonstrations of, keyboard touch and pedaling.
In sum, this should not displace anyone’s favorite recording of the Brahms concerto on CD, but it is definitely a worthwhile issue for those seeking a DVD alternative or who treasure Achúcarro’s art. The few alternatives on DVD include a Euroarts issue with Alexis Weissenberg, Georges Prêtre, and the French National Radio Orchestra (unidiomatic), and two issues by DG with the Vienna Philharmonic, respectively featuring Maurizio Pollini with Claudio Abbado (favorably reviewed by Steven Ritter in Fanfare 32:2), and Krystian Zimerman with Leonard Bernstein (condemned by Jerry Dubins in 31: 4). I concur with both critics, and would make Pollini my first choice, with Achúcarro taking a very respectable second place.