Alicia de Larrocha is now almost 72, and Friday night when she walked uncertainly toward the piano on the stage of the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall, she seemed a vulnerable figure.
But when the tiny Spanish pianist sat down at the keyboard, there was nothing frail or fragile about her playing.
The pianist's recital consisted entirely of Spanish repertory -- pieces by Carlos Surinach, Federico Mompou, Joaquin Turina, Enrique Granados and Isaac Albeniz -- that she plays better than anyone in the world and that she has recorded at least two or three times.
De Larrocha may no longer have the strength she was once able to muster -- she now substitutes finesse for power -- but this was a program that depended on evocation and color.
The pianist's fingers are still unerring, her personality is still captivating and her art is as rich and imaginative as ever.
Surinach's Suite from "Acrobats of God" -- which the composer transcribed from its orchestral original for the pianist in 1969 -- was filled with wonderful touches such as repeated notes in the "Bolero" and the "Spanish Galop" that were charged with rhythmic bite. Four selections from Mompou's "Seven Songs and Dances" were savored with a delicacy of color and feeling that not only underlined their relationship to Debussy but also made them seem almost the equal of that master's great piano works.
The greatest music -- Granados' "Escenas Romanticas" and four excerpts from Albeniz' "Iberia" -- came after intermission. The pianist's tiny hands -- which if they can span a ninth do so only by the grace of God -- are able to suggest the strumming of guitars and evoke the soft breezes of Spanish summer evenings.
The opening "Mazurka" was an invocation to romance, the "Epilogue" was distinguished by the crisp articulation, rhythmic vitality and sense of passion that have always been this pianist's trademark, and the exquisitely tooled trills in "The Poet and the Nightingale" must have been the envy of any pianist in the audience.
The pianist made light of the sometimes fiendish difficulties of the concluding Albeniz items. She made "Evocacion," "El Puerto," El Albaicin" and "Triana" sing with beguiling charm, playing with a lightness of articulation, a seductiveness of rhythm, a spontaneity of mood and a command of color that were mysterious in their mastery.
There are undoubtedly secrets that explain how de Larrocha achieves such miracles, but they are hers and hers alone.