I’m not a great fan of Classic FM. While it has undoubtedly expanded the audience for classical music, I feel it also has a massive tendency to assume the audience can’t or won’t cope with a 40-minute symphony, a string quartet or anything that’s not smoooooooth. It does play ‘complete works’ (gasp!), but tends to tuck them away after 10pm on the schedule, like John Peel on Radio 1 back in the day, for the die-hard fans only.
Classic FM talks a lot about ‘cross-over’ artists; Katherine Jenkins performing classical works in a ‘populist’ style, or composers of film scores, as though classical music can’t be popular unless it’s presented in 4-minute chunks. But this isn’t a cross-over of genres; it’s not like Bruce Springsteen playing Rodrigo’s Concerto de Aranjuez, or Bryn Terfel singing with AC/DC. It’s simply marketing using labels, and not in a good way.
Gabriela Montero is a wonderful musician. She plays improvisations, in the grand tradition of classical composers from Bach to Mozart, Beethoven and Liszt. Musicians have improvised in the churches and concert halls of Europe for centuries.
But because she has her own website and myspace pages, appears on television playing popular tunes, and brings a flavour of many different musical genres to her performances (not least her Venezuelan roots), she gets labelled as a cross-over artist, and indeed has been nominated for ‘cross-over’ awards in the Grammies. To my mind this belittles her skill and talent.
To even begin to tackle this sort of playing requires an immense technical ability, and a deep awareness and understanding of the music. Live on stage she can and will perform ‘requests’ like the Newsnight clip, but that doesn’t make her a cross-over artist (in fact, I dispute the use of the term…).
Her collection ‘Baroque’ is a terrific CD, a selection of mostly very-well-known classical pieces including Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Pachelbel’s Canon and Albinoni’s Adagio (that theme from Gallipoli!). But her improvisations transform these tunes into beautiful, thrilling and revelatory performances, often coloured with Latin American and jazz rhythms, wonderfully syncopated bass lines or shimmering arpeggios. It’s all terrific, but for me the standout is Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus from The Messiah. In her hands, one of the most famous choral works becomes a joyful calypso. Seek it out: trust me, it’s fantastic.