As "merely a blind noise – no healthy ideas any more, everything confused..." Clara Schumann denounced Liszt's B minor Sonata when he presented it to her, and one can hardly blame her for it. Its underlying sonata structure (and sonata within the sonata) eludes the ear and its dynamic fierceness can still be shocking nowadays. It is a piece that makes high demands on both musician and audience – one that can easily overtax a listener –and it requires great control on the side of the pianist to balance that fine line between well-dosed expression and falling into the abyss of expressive abandon.

Gabriela Montero © Shelley Mosman
Gabriela Montero
© Shelley Mosman

It is exciting to find out how a pianist manages this balancing act, and Gabriela Montero had you biting your nails. After an opening improvisation, a very sotto voce Lento assai, the Allegro energico erupted with the unexpected force of an emotional outbreak whose waves finally subsided in the gently breathing Grandioso chorale. It wasn't the most transparent account of the sonata I've heard, with bass lines and chords often blurring into one enormous roll of thunder, but a very ardent one full of colour, especially brilliant triplet passage work and sparkling virtuoso runs. But in Montero's hands the sonata was more than just a pianistic display of virtuosity and a radically expressive piece that required new formal freedoms for its expressivity. It was a confession, open and raw and immensely personal. When the rapping bass motif returned in the recapitulation, it started out as a pensive yet casual thought, a random idea that occurs and then – as thoughts do – immediately runs off into its own direction, touching upon numerous other (musical) elements as it went like a confessional diary entry wrapping up the entire emotional turmoil of the piece.

After the last dabbed note, it took time to resurface into the here and now and leave behind Liszt's world. Schubert's D899 impromptus functioned as a strong connecting element from the expressive to a gradually lighter mood, with nuanced three-part playing in the first, brilliance, speed and a captivating end in the second, and fascinating flutters in the last that grew into strong chord affirmations.

With their ostensibly improvised nature, the impromptus smoothly led into the final programmed part of the evening in which Montero demonstrated that ancient art of extempore she is famous for. By that time, I was completely overwhelmed by the preceding programme and felt unable to absorb another note, and the physical demands of Liszt and Schubert were writ large in the pianist's face too. "Well, that was a big programme. It's hard to talk after playing the Liszt Sonata and these incredible pieces," she explained and the first improvisation clearly mirrored that. It was still of the great intensity of the previous pieces, but with a lighter texture, more translucent, with higher timbre – distinctly Montero, and lightened up as the tension gradually subsided.

There is not only the pure fascination of such quick musical wit that can jump from a Baroque fugue to a danse macabre to a boogie bass-line so seamlessly that only a hand hovering over the keys for the fraction of a second, deciding where it would like to go next, gave an indication of the spontaneous nature of the music. There's also the intimacy between the artist and the audience and the fragility of the moment that is now and then gone forever, and that's what makes these occasions and performances so special.