Gabriela Montero at Queen Elizabeth Hall – Clara & Robert Schumann … Improvisations

Clara Schumann
Piano Sonata in G minor
Fantasy in C, Op.17


Gabriela Montero (piano)

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 5 March, 2014
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Gabriela Montero. Photograph: Colin BellGabriela Montero is the Venezuelan pianist who has made improvisation an integral part of her recitals. It’s a risky strategy – concert-goers may feel short-changed by a large chunk of her programme given over to music written, as it were, on water, or they may resist the rapport she, as her own and formidable warm-up artist, tries to establish with her audiences. Improvisation used to be a stock-in-trade accomplishment for composer-pianists, but in these musically more self-conscious days has all but disappeared from the ‘classical’ concert hall.

Montero’s talent for improvisation is astonishing – I recall her contribution to a screening of Murnau’s Faust a couple of years ago transforming that silent-film classic – yet her ease with all the tropes of baroque, classical, romantic and South American styles didn’t cast Clara Schumann’s G minor Piano Sonata in the most favourable light. Programmed, I suspect, as a nod to Montero’s participation in the Southbank Centre’s Women of the World Festival, it’s a slight, conventional work, its material unenhanced by Montero’s efficient but disengaged performance. Phrasing was unvaried, the furious passagework had plenty of attack but little tension, and the poetic moments didn’t burst into song. It was also completely pushed into a corner by her thrilling, totally committed account of Clara’s husband’s wonderful C major Fantasy. Apart from some dead-sounding fortissimos when she got carried away, Montero was in full command of the music’s scope, poetry and passion. Melodies emerged out of the rippling accompaniments with organic clarity, the rhythmic passages had a Beethovenian tautness, and the moments of transcendence glowed with elemental grandeur, all the more distinctive for the logic with which the ultra-intuitive Montero guided Schuman’s improvisatory-sounding, romantic surge. Montero really did the Fantasy proud, and the audience, with flag-waving ex-pat Venezuelans out in force, visibly moved her with their response.

The improvisation second part of her recital was, thankfully, tightly controlled – a short speech direct about the violence and corruption at large in her country, four improvisations to tunes or moods suggested/sung from the audience, then a lament for Venezuela and the finale another melody suggestion from the audience. Each piece lasted around five minutes, each with a discernible sense of form and climax. A Lady Gaga song was filtered through Chopin in meaty, heroic mode; ‘Time to Remember’ became a tinkling Mozartean minuet; and ‘Ba Ba Black Sheep’ was transformed into a minor-key piece of Lisztian bravura, all conceived with wit and bags of style. The fourth piece, based on a smartass suggestion of Irony, was a bit of a stretch, Prokofiev’s Sarcasms notwithstanding. Irony depends on words, but Montero did her best with a Debussy-like quizzical impressionism and incisive contrasts of material. Not surprisingly, her rhapsody for Venezuela retrieved music’s mastery of mood and made an immediate and poignant connection, its grief-laden message blown away by her finale, a tango built on the major-key, tonal positiveness of the Close Encounters of the Third Kind, through which aliens spake unto aliens.

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