Gabriela Montero’s King's Place recital, part of the London Piano Festival 2021, opened with Prokofiev’s brilliantly brittle Sarcasms, five short pieces about 13 minutes in total, quite rapidly despatched with very swift tempi and rather too little relaxation when the music grew lyrical. The steely, accurate pianism recalled descriptions of the composer’s own youthful playing. Best of the set was the third number, Allegro precipitato, its driven chordal theme at the outset recalling a russified “Waldstein” Sonata, and with welcome lyrical contrast in the middle. But elsewhere more light and shade would have been welcome.

Gabriela Montero
© Monika S Jakubowska | Kings Place

There was little pause between the pieces, or between them and the next item, Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata no. 2 in B flat minor, or even between its four movements. Yes, there is a kinship across these items but the impression was almost of a nine-movement work. Perhaps, having added this sonata to the initially announced programme, Montero realised swift tempi and curt pauses would be needed to deliver the concert in the two hours it took.

But while the Prokofiev items, especially the persuasive account of the sonata, respected the style and had excitement, Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Sonata (regrettably in its truncated second version) suffered from a lack of stylistic empathy. The hectic faster music, and the absence of much expression in the slower moments, almost managed something one would think impossible – making these two compatriots sound alike, which was perhaps the point. Rachmaninov’s trademark bell sounds in the first movement had little time to resonate, unsteadiness in the slow movement dimmed its glow, though the frantic finale made an emphatic close to the first half. Time to draw breath.

Stravinsky notoriously claimed “music is powerless to express anything”. So perhaps it was no surprise that this account of his neglected Piano Sonata – which has few expressive or dynamic markings and proceeds at fixed speeds and metres – was the best performance of the recital, indeed it would be hard to imagine a better one. Montero seemed completely inside its neo-classical idiom, clarifying its Bachian two-part invention textures ideally.

Gabriela Montero accompanies Charlie Chaplin's film, The Immigrant
© Monika S Jakubowska/Kings Place

The final item was billed as “Montero: Improvised piano performance to the screening of Chaplin’s film, The Immigrant (1917)”. The pianist felt it needed a spoken introduction, but admitted “I have no idea what will happen, not even what key it will be in, and have not even seen the film since I last did this in 2020.” She need not have worried, for it was remarkable. Here, Montero the composer, the improviser and the virtuoso became one, and in the service of a completely different art. Here, music was subservient, never attempting to draw attention away from the screen. Her ability to switch from rollicking passagework for the abundant physical comedy to a tentative sweetness for a burgeoning romance, and rapidly back again, were ideal. Only once did the music itself draw a laugh when the film was serious. As the ship bringing the immigrants to New York sailed past the Statue of Liberty, a grotesquely harmonised version of The Star Spangled Banner briefly rang out in response to the clichéd location shot. The close of the film brought far the biggest cheer of the evening. So a recital of two halves, and of a calibre after the interval to justify a unique reputation.