Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero scored an artistic success with her previous EMI disc Gabriela Montero: Piano Recital, consisting of two discs, of which the second consisted entirely of improvisations. With Bach and Beyond, Montero dives into her first all-improvisation disc, and while it is not a completely unqualified success artistically, it can be a refreshing swim. The Johann Sebastian Bach works listed in the contents are really only utilized as a point of departure, and in some cases the presence of Bach's tune is not apparent until the listener is into the improvisation 45 seconds or more. Montero is a very imaginative and skillful improviser -- in the enclosed interview Montero cites her unfamiliarity with the discipline of improvising to a jazz rhythm section, and clearly Bach and Beyond is not jazz. But nonetheless, Latin jazz and indigenous South American dance music informs her style of improvising to a great degree -- check out her tango-like transformation of an unspecified Air in G and the Boléro-like underpinnings of the Toccata in D minor. Of course, improvising is like stepping off a steep cliff with a parachute and hoping that you will reach the ground safely. Montero has no net here; in some cases she encounters some bumpy stuff on the way down -- some confusion among the hands here, some excessively busy textures there. Nonetheless, this is all part of the experience one accepts with Bach and Beyond, and if one comes to it with an open mind, it can make for a very pleasant listen.
As long as you do not come to Bach and Beyond expecting to hear Bach, which is what practically any professional artist can play to some extent, and accept that you are hearing Montero's own creations, which only she can do, then you will be fine. It will probably not satisfy those who regard the texts of Bach's music as sacred. Nonetheless, Bach and Beyond does provide rare exposure to a classical artist who willingly improvises in order to connect with her live audience, and imagining these pieces heard in a live context, they would be incredible. Montero clearly knows how to entertain, even though she is relying on her own creative faculties rather than a printed score. Although it is more "beyond" than Bach, the seat of the pants, go for broke excitement therein is the happy impression the listener comes away with after having heard Bach and Beyond.