Grey skies the perfect backdrop for this Venezuelan’s prodigious talents.

Utzon Room, Sydney Opera House
May 3, 2015

Gabriela Montero is not your common or garden concert pianist. At every performance she gives the Los Angeles-based Venezuelan mother of two gets the audience to sing a tune – it might be something as banal as Colonel Bogey or Three Blind Mice – then she’ll play around with it, enter ‘‘a white void’’ and turn it into a polonaise worthy of Chopin or a chorale by Bach. Now 45 and exiled from her corrupt homeland with its dizzying murder rate, she has been doing it since she was a child and it is a special talent that many classical musicians would give their eyeteeth to have.

The art was lost somewhere in the late-19th century; before then pianist-composers like Mozart and Beethoven were expected to extemporise. Now, with the borders between the various musical genres being rapidly broken down, Montero belongs to the new echelon of performers who are liberating themselves from the constrictions imposed by previous generations. Sydney audiences were first introduced to her prodigious talents as an improviser and orthodox performer in 2008 when she played Grieg’s concerto with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra as well as giving a recital of Bach-Busoni, Chopin, Debussy and Ginastera.

For her welcome return to the Opera House, in this instance for the more intimate Utzon Series, she chose three favourites of the Romantic repertoire in a set of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words – the Op.19b, probably the most popular group of six – alongside Schumann’s weighty and beautiful Fantasy in C, Op.17 and Schubert’s glorious Impromptus D935. All of these were despatched with Montero’s combination of secure technique and an emotional connection, both to the music and her listener, which never oversteps the bounds to become maudlin or sentimental.

Mendelssohn’s clear and featherlight melodic lines sprang from the page and the joyful fanfares of the so-called Hunting Song were both molto allegro and very vivace. The stunning harbour window view, with its customary blue turned to grey by the threatening afternoon rain clouds, was the perfect accompaniment to the lovely gentle rocking barcarolle of the Venetianisches Gondelied.

The threat of a storm outside also suited the Schumann, one of that composer’s longest solo piano works. He originally planned it in 1835 as a sonata to help fund a monument to Beethoven in Bonn, later revising and renaming it. This is a work where Schumann’s passionate love for his wife Clara is tangible but is set alongside his dangerously turbulent psychological state that ultimately would lead to his breakdown. All is resolved, however, in the final movement, one of the great treasures of the repertoire that Montero carried off with aplomb.

Schumann originally mistook Schubert’s late Impromptus as a four-movement sonata – easily done because far from the short improvisational snippets the name implies these are all substantial works, especially the allegro maestoso which opens the set. Here is the composer at his most sublime, dazzling us with tricky rhythmic flurries one moment and poetic yearning melodies the next.

And this led perfectly to the final 40 minutes of the recital that have now become a Montero ritual. This celebration of improvisation is no party trick. It’s part of her musical makeup and, as she says, a situation in the recital hall where “anything” can truly happen is a liberating experience for all. For this occasion one audience member came up with the appropriate if challenging jazz standard Stormy Weather. Once Montero had sorted out a missing note and found an appropriate key this quickly morphed into a missing Goldberg Variation by Bach before reinventing itself as a snatch of Brahms and a dash of Rachmaninoff.

Frère Jacque was given similar Bachian treatment before becoming a Chopin polonaise and – even more surprising – a full-blown Scott Joplin rag which brought the audience to its feet. Montero ended this splendid recital with a self-penned tribute to Venezuela that expressed all the anguish and yearning of someone who has “lost” their homeland. One feels that this is a performer who puts into practice EM Forster’s famous dictum “Only connect” when it comes to pleasing her audience.

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