Gabriela Montero's Solatino

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Let's face it, most people don't think of Latin America when they think of classical music. And neither do they envision even major composers from Brazil, Cuba, Venezuela or Argentina taking a seat alongside Beethoven and Brahms any time soon.

But a growing number of Latin American musicians seem determined to address this. Among them is the Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero, whose latest recording offers inspired performances of 26 short, luminous works by seven Latin American composers. It’s our Album of the Week.

Born in Caracas in 1970, Montero emerged on the scene in the last decade with several engaging and at times quirky recital recordings and an international concert diary that included an appearance at President Barack Obama’s inauguration, playing alongside Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman and Anthony McGill.

This, her third solo album, cuts a swath through 100 years of Latin classical music and begins in the middle, in the mid-20th century, with Ernesto Lecuona, the so-called Gershwin of Cuba. Lecuona wrote 11 film scores in the 1930s and 40s, and that experience seems to inform the colorful and expressive style of the short piano works featured here. Chief among them is the mambo-tinged La comparsa and the gorgeous Malagueña .

At the opposite end of the stylistic spectrum is Alberto Ginastera's Piano Sonata No. 1, a bold and challenging exploration of Argentine rhythms, and featuring a rather modernist harmonic language, carefully bent and shaped by Montero. The delicate third movement and the final rondo of the fourth movement aptly demonstrated her commanding technical skills.

Other composers on the album mix the sounds of European masters (the French impressionists in particular) with elements drawn from Latin American nationalism and popular song. We hear this especially in excerpts from Piezas infantiles by the Argentine Antonio Estevez and five salon-style pieces by Brazilian composer Ernesto Nazareth.

Finally, among Montero’s trademarks is a knack for improvisation. Once a fairly common skill among classical musicians (Mozart and Beethoven were both legendary improvisers), today it’s mostly gone from the classical ethos, as musicians became more concerned with fidelity to the score. This recording includes five short improvs, each infused with a supercharged Latin romanticism, the best being Mi Venezuela Llora.

Gabriela Montero
EMI Classics

Available at on 1/11/11 (pre order now)

Watch this clip of Montero playing Ginastera's Piano Sonata No. 1 and tell us what you think. Does Latin American classical music get short shrift?