Edinburgh Festival: Gabriela Montero - Queens Hall and The Hub, 12 August 2008
Gabriela Montero has been enjoying a fair amount of attention recently for her improvisatory abilities. But the first of her two concerts at the Edinburgh Festival was an opportunity to see how she'd cope with the standard repertoire in a programme mixing Bach, Chopin, Debussy, Schumann and Liszt.
The 11am start was cruel, and she confessed halfway through that she's 'not a morning person'. But the problem lies deeper than that. The pianist is a sort of translator who has to communicate with both the composer and the crowd. Montero has no problems on the second count - she's a warm, engaging person, sensitive and responsive to her audience. But connecting with the score was another matter.
From the first piece to the last, I had no idea what she was trying to say. The first half was delivered in a consistent cautious mezzoforte, the second thunderingly loud. Everything was inflected with a seemingly random rubato. Pedalling was obedient to the rhythm rather than the phrase. If it wasn't for the sheer technical difficulty of much of her programme, I'd have assumed she was playing it through for the first time.
Her physical abilities were in no doubt, with tremendous strength, control and articulation apparent across all techniques, and surprisingly few fingering errors considering the technical challenges. I did wonder if she'd simply not practised enough or really thought the scores through. Whatever the reason, the results were not impressive.
There are artists whose gimmicky presentation masks a genuine interpretive talent (I'm thinking of the likes of Lang Lang and Fazil Say) but on this basis I'm not convinced Montero is one of them. Significantly, the only time I sensed any musicality was in the encore, an improvisation based on Flower of Scotland.
Her second show was an all-improvisation late nighter at the Hub in front of a packed crowd. Half of us had belted uphill in the rain after the late-running Dudamel concert at the Usher Hall, and wanted something special to compensate for having to skip the encore.
Here, Montero was in her element. Calling out for themes from the audience, she gave us Yesterday in the style of Piazzolla, a boogie woogie Night & Day and the Alle Menschen werden Brüder bit from the end of Beethoven's 9th in the style of Rachmaninov or perhaps Legrand - a fallback style she slipped into for a couple of folk tunes too. Less successful was a Bach-like take on a snatch of the Moonlight Sonata, where she set herself an inescapable circular trap.
It was undemanding and entertaining, and at a technical level, I think the most skilled improvising I've heard. But I think I'll do without a second helping.