By Ted AYALA
Robert Thies is a pianist who – bless him – simply lets his instrument sing. There is nothing of the hoary carnival barker in his pianism, to say nothing of the sideshow. On the contrary. Here is a genuine aristocrat of the piano.
Beethoven’s “Piano Concerto No. 4,” which he performed with the Santa Cecilia Orchestra on Sunday, is the undoing of many pianists; the litmus test that separates the mere speed and loudness fetishists from the truly complete musicians.
In echt Beethovenian fashion, the concerto bucked the audience’s expectation of how “Beethovenian” is defined. “Fierce?” “Heroic?” Try “gentle,” “pastoral,” “joyful.” Despite the chronic health problems that the composer was struggling with at the time of the work’s composition, the outer movements unfold before the listener like an endless landscape of rolling green hills, all of it permeated by a sunlight that never sets. No “fate knocking at one’s door.” (Although in another Beethovenian irony, a later generation of musical scholars would discover that the most famous four notes in history were worked out from the piano solo that opens this concerto. On the very same page of musical sketch paper, in fact.)
Thies has that ability – all too rare – to tap directly into the essence of a score. Indeed, his performance had all the seeming inevitability of the score virtually playing itself. This isn’t to say that his playing was dry, boring, or – worst of all – stuffed to the gills with High Academic Guff. His was playing that was vibrant, alive, with a pearlescent, songful touch, but always at the service of what the music demands.
His partnering with the Santa Cecilia Orchestra, under the direction of Sonia Marie de León de Vega, could not have been better. Dynamics were carefully restrained, with the orchestra only really being let off the proverbial leash at the finale’s ecstatically dancing coda. In the central movement, both Thies and the orchestra went for plaintive and pliant, rather than for mere power, laying out in stark relief the pathos at the heart of this music.
The orchestra’s performance of Mendelssohn’s “Symphony No. 3” was fine: tending toward the broad in scope, displaying more musculature than one often hears in performances of this composer. It was square-jawed, brawny. Their playing of the Scotch snap finale had a craggy, granitic strength.
In this they were also aided by a richer, darker sound in the orchestra, especially in the strings. In short, altogether improved from previous seasons (not that the orchestra was ever in need of “improvement” as such).
It was a sound that especially complemented the winds, always full of character and soulful with this orchestra. The colors they evoked in the filigree textures of the symphony’s scherzo was something to savor.