January 24, 2014
By Mark Satola
Two very distinct sides of a remarkable artist were presented for consideration Thursday night at the Cleveland Institute of Music, when Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero played music of Johannes Brahms and Robert Schumann, followed by a series of eye-opening improvisations on themes suggested by members of the audience.
Montero began her recital, part of the Mixon Hall Masters Series, with the three Intermezzi, Op. 117, by Brahms. Brahms’ late piano pieces are generally considered to be the introspective thoughts of a composer in his old age (though in truth, Brahms was only 59 when he committed those thoughts to paper), and there is something trance-like and visionary about the first of them, the Andante moderato in E-flat, a wistful cradle song suffused with nostalgia and longing.
What is more noteworthy about these pieces is that they represent an essentialization of Brahms’ technique and expression, and Montero’s approach suited the music well.
Her performance of the three pieces, which increase in contrapuntal and emotional complexity, was full of exquisite balances, finely calculated rubato and subtle dynamics, yet the listener was never aware of anything but Brahms’ innermost thoughts.
Montero’s natural and undemonstrative style at the keyboard, and her sensitivity to the composer’s intentions, resulted in a highly charged performance of music that, in lesser hands, can be somnolent.
Her performance of Schumann’s not-often-heard Fantasy in C Major, Op. 17, was similarly successful. Schumann’s three-movement essay is one of a breed of works current at the time that sought to escape the bonds of strict sonata form in favor of a more freely composed fantasia (Liszt’s Piano Sonata and Schubert’s “Wanderer” Fantasy” come to mind).
Montero approached Schumann’s score with steely precision and, where called for, a melting lyricism. Schumann’s masterstroke in this piece is not so much the heroic march that forms the second movement, but the glowing, slow finale that follows it.
Montero’s marvelous pedal effect as she transitioned into the last part, and her sustained tone and phrasing to the end, made a strong case for Schumann’s work to be heard more often.
Montero is already hailed for her preternatural abilities as an improviser, and she did not disappoint Thursday night. An exceptional improviser can create marvelous music even on the most unlikely of themes, and Montero was in exceptional form with audience-suggested tunes that ranged from seemingly uninspiring to startlingly fertile.
Sometimes a pop tune is an improviser’s best bet, and Montero’s first ad libitumexcursion was based on the song “Let It Snow” (inspired no doubt by the cinematic tableau of gentle snow falling behind Mixon Hall's glass stage wall).
Montero mused a bit on the tune, then launched into a Bachian fantasia, full of brilliant counterpoint and dazzling harmonies that had the audience laughing with delight.
Likewise, a suggestion from the large contingent of Venezuelans in the audience for a popular song from their homeland resulted in a polytonal toccata, reminiscent of Bartok or Prokofiev.
Though one might think that Schumann’s “Träumerei” would not yield much as a theme for improvising, Montero proved her creative mettle by transforming it into a Rachmaninoffian etude-tableau that was rich and internally complex. The opening melody of Wagner’s opera “Parsifal,” however, proved to be somewhat unmalleable, though Montero deserves great credit for what gold she was able to spin from it.
The most interesting moment came when someone suggested a mood rather than a musical phrase. Montero composed on the spot a Debussian excursion describing a young girl from a warmer climate encountering a snowy landscape for the first time.
She concluded her recital with a vigorous Beethovenian workout on, of all things, Debussy's “Clair de lune,” which led to an extended coda treating the theme as a lively and harmonically complex ragtime dance. One hopes that some of these will stick in Montero's memory, to be enshrined as fully formed compositions.