Monday, January 15, 2018

Gluck, Mozart, Rachmaninoff, Chopin from Robert Thies


Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church

Robert Thies.
One of the pleasures of the South Bay's several series of daytime chamber concerts is their informality, and when the performer is not only a gifted interpreter but also a communicator, a delightful conversational dimension is added to the event. Such is certainly the case with Robert Thies, now further embedded in the local musical culture with his recent Artistic Directorship of the South Bay Chamber Music Society. On this occasion, however, he appeared in his most familiar role as solo pianist, before a very welcoming audience that filled the ample space of Rolling Hills United Methodist Church to the point of late-comers having to stand at the back.

After a measured account of the “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” from Act II of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice that to my ears had a good deal of baroque sensibility despite being from a later piano arrangement, he picked up the microphone for some career reminiscence to his student days, when he was first introduced to Mozart’s Piano Sonata No.8 in A minor K.310/ 300d. Mozart composed it in 1778 at around the time his mother died, and it is one of the rare minor-key works in his output. Thirty years ago as a student, Mr. Thies said, he had rapidly realized that he wasn’t yet ready to tackle it, and indeed only in the past year had learned the sonata to add to his repertoire. This would be his first public performance of it. 

1777 copy of a painting of the young Mozart. 
Mr. Thies took a quite deliberate approach to the opening Allegro maestoso, giving a real stabbing quality to the groups of four eighth-note chords that underpin the clipped dotted-note first subject. This combination of spaciousness and intensity enabled him to move into the gentler second subject without loss of momentum, and it was good that he observed the exposition repeat, enabling listeners to thoroughly absorb the movement’s thematic substance. 

Unsurprisingly, he didn’t take the second-half repeat in the first movement, nor that of the exposition in the central Andante cantabile con espressione. In this movement, which would have been over-long with the repeat, his quite slow pace enabled the music’s intrinsic expressivity to reach full power. In this sonata Mozart maintains the intensity into the short but driven Presto finale, still in A minor, making the whole the very antithesis of the cozy Viennese chocolate-box view of the composer. Later Mr. Thies remarked that after a first performance he would go home and think about what needed changing… not a whole a lot with this piece, I would say. 

The first known photograph
of Chopin, from 1846 or 1847.
Rachmaninoff in 1909.
After a complete change of pace, mood, and dynamic with Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G major, Op.32 No.5, in which Mr. Thies articulated with relishable clarity its melodic line over the rippling arpeggiated accompaniment, he moved on to the other main work in the recital – also, he said, a first performance for him – Chopin’s mighty Ballade No.4 in F minor Op.52. The great English pianist John Ogdon described it as “the most exalted, intense and sublimely powerful of all Chopin’s compositions... It is unbelievable that it lasts only twelve minutes, for it contains the experience of a lifetime.” Perhaps it is a tribute to the performance that one simply marveled at the unfolding genius of the work itself, rather than being consciously aware of the skill with which Mr. Thies explored and laid bare its complexities. 

Finally he returned to the platform for an old favorite as encore – Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G minor Op.23 No.5, which (for no really good reason) continues to remind me of the TV footage of precision displays by the high-stepping Lippizan stallions at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna that used to punctuate broadcasts of the Vienna Philharmonic’s New Year’s Day concerts… 


Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, 2pm, Sunday, January 14, 2017.
Photos: Robert Thies:; Mozart: Wikimedia Commons; Rachmaninoff: Portrait by Robert Sterl, ©picture-alliance/Mary Evans Picture Library; Chopin:

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