Montero Delivers High-Quality Spin on the Classics

Gabriela Montero is an up-and-coming performer on the world scene, with a newly released CD of piano miniatures and improvisations. Melissa Block and Performance Today host Fred Child critique and mostly praise the high quality of the album.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

(Soundbite of music by Gabriela Montero)

And we're listening to a Venezuelan pianist, Gabriela Montero, playing Chopin's Nocturne in D Flat.

(Soundbite of Ms. Montero playing Nocturne in D Flat)

And now, another version of that same Nocturne. This time Montero is improvising.

(Soundbite of Ms. Montero improvising Nocturne in D Flat)

Gabriela Montero's latest release is two CDs, packaged together. The first, Piano Miniatures from the romantic period. The second disc is all improvisations on classical themes from Bach to Scriabin. Joining us to talk about both facets of Montero's playing is Fred Child, the host of NPR's Performance Today. Fred, good to see you again.

Mr. FRED CHILD (Host of Performance Today): Good to see you, Melissa.

BLOCK: And first, let's explain just a little bit. When we say miniatures, it's exactly what it sounds like. Most of the pieces on this first CD are one, two, three minutes long.

Mr. CHILD: Yeah, very short pieces. Kind of character pieces from the romantic era, from the 19th century and early 20th century.

BLOCK: Now, this Chopin Nocturne that we've been hearing, when you listen to both the standard classical version and the improvisational version, what are you hearing there?

Mr. CHILD: Well, the first thing I hear is that she tries to improvise, which is so unusual these days for a classically trained musician. And Melissa, this is really kind of an historical aberration in the world of classical music. It used to be you had to improvise. Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Liszt, all these guys were great improvisers. They were expected to be able to improvise. It's really around the beginning of the 20th century that we got these pure interpreters who were raised to the same high level of artists as the composers themselves, and it became this new art, simply interpreting the notes that somebody else wrote.

So for Gabriela Montero to be a classically trained pianist who has this urge to improvise, I think, is taking us back to maybe a better place in the world of classical music.

BLOCK: I want to play one of the other pieces she does. It's another piece by Chopin. This is his Fantasy Impromptu in C Sharp Minor.

(Soundbite of Fantasy Impromptu in C Sharp Minor by Gabriela Montero)

BLOCK: Now Fred, she's setting a blistering pace here.

Mr. CHILD: Yeah, she is. She is really roaring along. And this is a piece that's built for speed in some ways, but she's shifting it into a higher gear, and what we hear in this is that she has one of the things you have to have to be a great classical pianist, great technical ability. You can hear the transparency in those speedy runs.

(Soundbite of Fantasy Impromptu in C Sharp Minor by Gabriela Montero)

Every note is even up and down the keyboard; great technical ability; great speed in this. And she doesn't necessarily sacrifice musicianship when she's doing that, either. She still makes nice phrasing in the music as she's roaring along.

BLOCK: Yeah, and I'm getting a little dizzy as I listen to her play this, but there are places in here where the tempo gets really gluey. It sort of, she stretches things out. Let's take a listen.

(Soundbite of Fantasy Impromptu in C Sharp Minor by Gabriela Montero)

Now when Gabriela Montero's playing that part, are we hearing some of that same sort of improvisational jazz tendency in how she's interpreting this classical piece?

Mr. CHILD: I can't help but wonder that, actually, Melissa. That gluey sound you're talking about, rubato, classical musicians call that.

BLOCK: That's a prettier name, isn't it?

Mr. CHILD: Stretching the tempo and squeezing the tempo as you go, even if the composer doesn't tell you to. You know, every interpreter has to be an improviser to some degree. You have to make the notes your own. But I can't help but wonder if, because she really is an improviser, if she takes that a little farther than some other classically trained pianists might.

BLOCK: Fred, where on this CD do we really hear Gabriela Montero letting loose with improvisation?

Mr. CHILD: Well, letting loose, to a certain degree anyway, when she takes some scenes from the Second Piano Concerto by Sergei Rachmaninov, and treats them the way a jazz musician might. She takes the basic chord progression, you can hear that underlying what she's doing, but then she starts to take a solo over the top of that, and it's exactly what a jazz player might do. She doesn't make it sound like bee-bop, but you can hear, she is moving in that direction.

(Soundbite of Fantasy Impromptu in C Sharp Minor by Gabriela Montero)

BLOCK: So she's having some fun in here.

Mr. CHILD:She is. It's very sweet, some nice, inventive little moments. Kind of echoing the sound world of some jazz pianists you might know, people like Horace Silver, people like Bill Evans. And, you know, I don't think she's going to be the next jazz sensation in the world of improvisation, but the mere fact that she's a classically trained musician, who has this unstoppable urge to improvise, I find impressive, and I think brings a whole other dimension to her music making that you just don't hear from that many classical players.

BLOCK: Gabriel Montero is from Venezuela, as we mentioned. What else do we know about her?

Mr. CHILD: 35-years-old; grew up in Caracas, still is in Caracas. Had a nice little career beginning to develop, but things really took off for her a few years ago when an Argentine pianist named Marta Argerich took her under her wing. Argerich, one of the most revered pianists in the world, and has this kind of mystique about her, and when she heard Montero playing, she thought, this is a really special young pianist.

So now, Gabriela Montero plays in these concerts called Marta Argerich Presents, which has brought her a lot more attention and this internationally released recording. And I think we'll learn a lot more about her as she starts to play more and more out and about, and playing longer-form pieces, too. This CD is very nice. It shows her ability in these miniatures, but the next question is can she sculpt a much bigger piece?

BLOCK: Fred, good to talk with you.

Mr. CHILD:Good to talk with you, Melissa.

BLOCK: Fred Child, host of NPR's Performance Today, talking with us about the two CD set from pianist Gabriela Montero, titled Piano Recital.

(Soundbite of music played by Gabriela Montero)

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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