The first striking thing about this recording was visual: The EMI logo, usually framed in bright red, is bordered instead by black, as is the spine of the CD’s jewel case. This turns out to be at the request of Venezuela-born pianist Gabriela Montero, who has devoted this, her seventh CD, to Latin works and is using the occasion to protest Venezuela’s oppressive regime by eliminating from the artwork a color that, in her native country, “has been stripped of its passionate beauty and power,” Montero writes, “and is now associated with repression, fury and control.”
Of course, music has the power to buoy resistance, and the selections, by composers who lived and worked in the 20th century, give a broad but characteristic picture of a flourishing Latin American musical life.
It starts, appropriately, with Cuba’s Ernesto Lecuona. Here’s a composer who infiltrated North America’s musical consciousness with pop-song arrangements of his piano miniatures (“Always in My Heart,” “The Breeze and I” and many more) as well as film music he wrote for MGM. The eight selections chosen by Montero include three selections from his Suite Espanola (you’ll probably recognize “Malaguena”) as well as a handful of occasional pieces as evocative as any Debussy prelude—and deserving of the same acclaim.
Lecuona’s own recordings of his works are lush in their easygoing nature; perhaps this ultimately worked against him, suggesting something not as “classical” as the critics prefer. Montero takes a bolder approach, giving full attention to the rhythmic and harmonic intricacies that lurk beneath Lecuona’s affecting melodies.
Argentina’s Alberto Ginastera won popularity through his ballet scores; other works have a darker, crunchier aspect, and his Piano Sonata No. 1 takes no prisoners in its pursuit of rhythmic complexity. In terms of easy accessability, it’s as far afield as this CD’s program goes, luring the untried listener into areas that reward such exploration. Also from Argentina—and a contemporary of Ginastera—was Antonio Estévez, although the four selections from his 17 Piezas infantiles are more Ravel-by-way-of-Stravinsky: easygoing, charming as hell.
Ernesto Nazareth’s quartet of miniatures give us dances (tango, especially) from his native Brazil, while two Venezuelan composers, Teresa Carreño and Moisés Moleiro, finish the disc with a piece apiece, Carreño’s a gentle waltz, Moleiro’s a lively, fingerbusting jig.
Weaving these works together is the true heart of the program: five improvisations by Montero, drawing upon her incredible talent for spinning out what sounds like—and, for that matter, is—a fully realized work, each of which transitioning us brilliantly from mood to mood in this incredibly varied program.
Montero’s chops as a concert pianist are beyond dispute—her previous recordings have more than confirmed this. It’s in her improvising that she already bids fair to join the ranks of keyboard legends.