Gabriela Montero occupies a unique position in the music world. A classical artist who performs the core piano literature with leading orchestras around the world, she is also an intrepid improviser. At her concerts, she often asks the audience to suggest songs and she then plays them as baroque, romantic, or whatever style occurs to her at the moment.
Montero is also an outspoken critic of the corrupt government of her native country, Venezuela. Now based in the United States, Montero has won awards for her piano playing (including the International Chopin Piano Competition and the Rockefeller Award for her contributions to the arts) as well as her humanitarian efforts. She was recently named Honorary Consul by Amnesty International.
Her new album on Orchid Classics, in which she is joined by the YOA Orchestra of the Americas under Carlos Miguel Prieto, displays the various sides of her immense talent.
The album is Gabriela Montero’s debut orchestral recording. The CD features the world premiere of her first formal composition, “Ex Patria,” as well as her first concerto recording, Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2. She feels an obvious kinship to an earlier pianist-composer in exile, in his case Russia.
In a poll of 100 leading concert pianists in 2010, Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943) was voted the greatest pianist in the history of recorded sound. He has also composed an impressive body of compositions of enduring popularity. Like Puccini, another supreme melodist, Rachmaninov was often looked down upon by critics of classical music as overly sentimental. To some extent, both were throwbacks to the Romantic era.
The theme from the Piano Concerto No. 2 was turned into a pop music hit under the title of “Full Moon and Empty Arms,” famously recorded by Frank Sinatra and included in Bob Dylan’s latest album.
Montero’s recording is successful because she not only has the necessary pianistic skills, but she is also a supreme romantic.
The centerpiece of the album, though, is the world premiere recording of her first formal composition, “Ex Patria, Op. 1 (In Memoriam).” This is Montero’s lament for the dire conditions in Venezuela, for the 19,336 homicide victims in 2011 when she wrote the work. In the liner notes, she updates the dire statistics: 21,692 murders in 2012 and 24,763 in 2013. “Ex Patria” is her attempt to reach “beyond nostalgia to a very public cry.”
After the swooningly romantic Rachmaninoff, “Ex Patria” is like a douse of cold water. As Montero explains, “the opening chord is intended to jolt the public from silence and apathy.” The calm statement of the theme is interrupted by the “militaristic interruption … depicting the daily gunfire to which Venezuelans have grown accustomed.” There follows a “slow and rhapsodic dialogue of mourning, culminating in a disconsolate and unison lament.” The end of “Ex Patria” is as sudden as death.
The haunting work is followed by three solo piano improvisations. Again, Montero’s style harkens back to classical music before the 20th century.
There are other versions of the Rachmaninov concerto that match or surpass this one. However, the works that follow, especially “Ex Patria,” make this CD unique and worth having. It is also important to call attention to the tragic situation in Venezuela, a country of extraordinary beauty.