Thursday, September 12, 2019

Schubert’s Last Piano Sonata Played by Robert Thies

The first manuscript page of Schubert's sketches for the Piano Sonata No.21 in B-flat major D. 960. 


Robert Thies, Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church

Many of Schubert’s large-scale late works—indeed, some individual movements within them—open with the sense of an epic journey being embarked upon, and of none is this more true than the Piano Sonata No.21 in B-flat major D. 960, with right at the outset the marking Molto moderato to dictate a very steady pace for the five quarter-note chords that begin the spacious main theme. Robert Thies’ spoken introduction to his performance of the Sonata, which formed the bulk of the inaugural recital in RHUMC’s 2019-2020 season, was eloquent about his own long journey with it, and more broadly with Schubert as a treasured central feature of his pianistic career.

Robert Thies playing the Piano Sonata No.21
at Rolling Hills United Methodist Church.
He thus played the Sonata from memory—a prodigious feat in itself—and of which it's no criticism to say that it led me to speculate (and it can be nothing more, from a non-performer) whether for a player this may involve a trade-off, with gains in fluency and cogency resulting from no interruption from pages of dots between mind and hands, but perhaps offset by a tendency for that memory to by-pass some finer nuances of dynamic and expression which eyes on the score could pick up?

In the event Mr. Thies began his journey through the lengthy first movement with a minimum of agogic accentuation and the dynamic a notch or two above the marked pianissimo, bespeaking a fine balance between expressiveness and onward progress. Even without the long exposition repeat the first movement occupies well over one-third of the sonata’s total duration—none of the remaining three movements being particularly extended— and he followed such illustrious interpreters of the work as Schnabel, Curzon and Brendel in omitting the repeat.

I guess I’ll forever be in two minds about this. Recalling some performances where inclusion of the repeat together with too slow a basic tempo made the first movement seem to last forever and unbalance the whole, there was certainly a gain here in overall cohesion. But on the other hand Schubert wrote nine measures of seemingly tortuously calculated first-time lead-back music, whereas in the two other sonatas he composed concurrently with No.21 in autumn 1828 (No.19 in C minor D. 958 and No.20 in A major D. 959) and which, together with the String Quintet in C major D. 956, form his final testament as a composer of instrumental music, No.20 has just four relatively straightforward measures of first-time lead-back and No.19 no marked repeat at all. So surely Schubert meant those nine measures in No.21 to be heard..?

Sketch by Friedrich Lieder of Schubert in 1827.
With the other three movements there are no such structural conundrums. For me, perhaps the highlight was the ensuing Andante sostenuto, whose similarity of pace to that of the first movement can add in an insensitive performance to the feeling that much of this sonata comprises a vast tract of undifferentiated slowish music. No danger of that here. Mr. Thies, without taking it unduly slowly, brought out fully the sense of frozen tragedy, with the staccato eighth notes and octave leaps that permeate the opening and closing sections of the movement's ABA structure feeling like the repeated stab of a tormented nerve.

After an account of the concise and brilliant Scherzo that fully met the Allegro vivace con delicatezza marking which so decisively breaks with the haunted mood of its predecessor, Mr. Thies added to the Allegro ma non troppo finale's basic ebullience just the right sense of odds overcome, his careful observation of that modifying ma non troppo enabling a really electrifying surge into the Presto coda that brought the house down.

He preceded the Schubert Sonata with Mozart’s Fantasia No. 3 in D minor, K. 397/385g, which seems to be a real favorite amongst pianists here—this was the third performance of it I had encountered in a South Bay recital in as many years. As ever, its sideslip two-thirds of the way through from haunted D-minor introspection to “no problem after all” amiability failed to convince, but Mr. Thies, through careful spacing of the transitional chords and pauses and a caressing, feather light opening to the Allegretto when it finally arrived, made as good a case for it as one could imagine. 


Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, Sunday, September 8 2019, 2.30 p.m.
Images: Manuscript: Schubert online; Robert Thies: Elaine Lim; Schubert: Figures of Speech.

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