Monday, June 12, 2017

Robert Thies takes a European Musical Tour at Rolling Hills


Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church

Robert Thies.
Another end-of-term concert, and in it, the last of RHUMC’s “Second Sundays at Two” for the 2016-2017 season, pianist Robert Thies demonstrated his customary deft skill in program planning. The idea of “a voyage through Europe” was pegged on the inspiration for the final item in his recital, Debussy’s L'isle joyeuse L.106, being the painting by Watteau titled L'Embarquement pour Cythère (below), though critical commentary on the work seems to be divided as to whether those depicted are preparing to leave rather than embark for the island, the mythical birthplace of Aphrodite/Venus. And, given the location, there’s plenty of room for allegorical interpretation, most of the travelers clearly being amorous couples.

Either way, Mr Thies’ brilliant performance, sweeping up Debussy’s panoply of demisemiquaver whole-tone runs and plentiful showering of trills in an unstoppable torrent of forward motion, clearly made Debussy’s “joyous isle” a location for any amount of athletic activity, be it the scaling of precipitous peaks glittering in the hot Mediterranean sun, or passionate conquests of a more personal nature. 

L’Embarquement pour Cythère, by Jean-Antoine Watteau.

The voyage through Europe had begun in Vienna, with Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.18 in E-flat Major, Op.31 No.3, sometimes known as “The Hunt” on account of the Presto con fuoco finale’s galloping motion and the appearance in it of a motif that can be likened to a horn call. Very welcome it was to encounter one of the less often played among Beethoven’s “named” piano sonatas, and Mr Thies in his spoken introduction noted that not only was this his last four-movement sonata out of the 32, but also that it enshrined notable structural originality.

Between the expansive first movement (where due to that very expansiveness the omission of the lengthy exposition repeat was understandable) and the finale, there is no slow movement as such, and instead not one but two variants on the minuet/scherzo model. Mr Thies’ fast tempo gave the second movement, which is labeled Scherzo (though it is a modified sonata structure rather than the customary ABA scherzo-and-trio form), an almost obsessively driven quality, but then treated the following Menuetto (which does have a central trio followed by repetition of the opening section) to an expansive, even dreamy interpretation that made it a de facto slow movement for the sonata. It all worked very well. 

He then stayed in Vienna for Schubert’s Impromptu in G-flat Major Op.90 No.3 D.899, from the first of his two sets of four. Mr Thies emphasized that Schubert’s tally of over 600 songs represents probably his greatest legacy to Western music, and that this songfulness often extends to his purely instrumental works. The skill with which he articulated Schubert’s intensely affecting melodic line through the almost continuous pianissimo arpeggiated accompaniment made me wish that we were hearing him play the whole set. 

Then, in complete contrast both to the Schubert and the concluding Debussy, it was on to the Russian steppes for Rachmaninoff’s rumbustious Prelude in G Minor, Op.23 No.5 (the program leaflet inadvertently got the opus number’s digits reversed). Before he resumed his place at the keyboard Mr Thies told of meeting, on a recital tour some years ago, a person who had personally known Rachmaninoff, who in turn had revealed the program behind this prelude – the outer martial sections representing a group of Cossacks approaching and then moving on from a village they had sacked, and in the central section the cries of women over the bodies of their slain menfolk. Powerful stuff, and vividly bodied forth in Mr Thies’ muscular performance. 

After flagging up the forthcoming 2017-2018 “Second Sundays at Two” season, which begins on September 10 and will include a welcome return by Robert Thies on January 14, RHUMC Music Director Chuck Dickerson III brought the pianist back onto the platform for a brief encore, one of his own improvisations as featured on one of his Blue Landscapes CDs


Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, 2pm, Sunday, June 12, 2017. Photos: Robert Thies; Watteau.

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