Emil von Sauer (1862-1942)
Piano Works in Four volumes
Oleg Marshev — piano
Volume 1 — Etudes de Concert
Concert-Etude; Vogelstimmen; Murmure du Vent; Octaven-Etüde; Près du Ruisseau; Frisson de Feuilles; Flammes de Mer; Au Vol; Orage d’Avril; Sylphes glissants; A Cheval; L’Eteuf; La Chasse; Prélude Erotique; Tarantelle Fantastique; Etude en Trilles; Les Sirènes; Volubilité; Vision; A la valse.
DANACORD DACD487 / 77.21 / AmazonUK
Volume 2 — Etudes de Concert and other works
Etude chromatique; Le Vertige; Toccata; Les Pins de la Villa Medici; Gebirgsbächlein; Preghiera; Walsdeszauber; Waldandacht; Staccato-Etüde; Dialogo (Impromptu)
Les Délices de Vienne; Le Retour; Couplet sans Paroles; Scherzo Valse; Boîte a musique; Echo de Vienne.
DANACORD DACD488 / 71.36 / AmazonUK
Volume 3 — Piano Sonata No 1 and other pieces
Propos de Bal; Konzert-Polka; Approche de Printemps; Valse Impromptu; Quand vient l’été; Romance sans paroles; Scherzo;
Sonata No.1 in D major
DANACORD DACD533 / 67.34 / AmazonUK
Volume 4 — Piano Sonata No.2 and other pieces
Courante und trio; Gavotte et Musette; Le Luth; Sérénade française; Barcarolle; Scherzo pastoral; Serenata veneziana; Sempre scherzando.
Sonata No.2 in Eb major
DANACORD DACD534 / 67.11 / AmazonUK
Recorded at Mantzlos Garden, Birkerød, Denmark
Vol.1 — Jan 1988; Vol. 2 — October 1998; Vols. 3 & 4 — September 1999
Christmas had come early for me when the four Danacord CDs of Emil Von Sauer’s piano music arrived for review. Now Von Sauer is certainly not a composer whom I know well. Much of my scant knowledge of him is by hearsay and from the few descriptions of his life and works that are available in print or on the Web. Of course, anyone who is interested in the Romantic Piano Concerto as a genre, will have been aware of the fine performance of the 1st Concerto in E minor on Hyperion with Stephen Hough as the admirable soloist. This work is probably most people’s only recent opportunity for appreciating the fine talents of this largely neglected composer. This CD release by Danacord allows a fine opportunity to come to terms with a huge tract of Von Sauer’s piano works.
The first thing to be said is that we are not dealing with a genius when we are considering these works. Von Sauer is no Rachmaninov or Liszt — and that probably explains the drop off of interest in his works during the twentieth century. Yet what we have here is a fine collection of very beautiful and totally absorbing piano pieces that are interesting, well written, technically perfect and quite charming. They deserve to be well known; they are required listening for every enthusiast of the romantic tradition of piano writing. Not being a genius is nothing to be ashamed of. Few composers actually are, although the term is often used to excess. What Von Sauer lacks in “divine” inspiration he makes up for in technical expertise, wit and poetry.
It is not possible to give a complete review of every piece of music on these discs. There are twenty-four or so works recorded. One of these, the Etudes de Concert has thirty numbers. What I want to do is consider the composer a little bit and try to give an overview of some of these works. Obviously the two fine sonatas need more consideration than some of the derivative salon pieces. Yet we must be careful not to look down our noses at these less dramatic works. In their own right they are miniature masterpieces. They entertained a whole generation of concertgoers. And the tastes of these concertgoers were just as sophisticated as our tastes are today — perhaps even more so, as they were prepared to enjoy music that was just sheer pleasure to listen to. Sometimes I feel that we adopt a “hair shirt” approach to music. If it is hard on the ears, not easily understandable and obscure — it must be good! Emil Von Sauer teaches us that we can sit back and enjoy a little bit of light virtuosic music now and again — without having to apologise to ourselves or anyone else.
Emil George Konrad Sauer was born in Hamburg on 8th October 1862. Like so many composers, he began his piano tuition under the auspices of his mother. She was an accomplished pianist whose family hailed from Scotland. (How many times do we come across musical Scots abroad? We need only think of the great pianist and composer Eugen d’Albert born in Newton Terrace, off Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow. He made his career in Germany and Austria)
Strangely, Emil was not a child prodigy. He did not begin to shew any aptitude for music until his tenth birthday. As is often the case, Sauer père was keen that the young man should make his career in law — then as now a more lucrative business than composing, teaching or recital work. However this was not to be. The often quoted words of Sauer himself refer to a concert of music played by Anton Rubenstein, “As the great man played, something seemed to break within me; everything took on a new meaning. The bonds of my soul were loosened and I knew that henceforth, good or ill, music was to claim me for her own.”
Soon after this revelation he was playing before Rubenstein himself who suggested that Emil should study with Rubenstein’s brother, Nicholas. There was period after his teacher death in 1881 when Sauer attempted to forge his solo career. He made a debut appearance in Hamburg to excellent reviews and toured Germany, Italy, London and Spain. It was in 1884 that he worked under the guidance of Franz Liszt in Weimar. He had a somewhat ambiguous relationship with the older composer. He even expressed — to the old man’s face — the fact that he preferred the music of Brahms to that of Liszt. Later in life Sauer was to deny that he received much benefit from his two years in Weimar. However, even a cursory study of his music reveals that there is some considerable debt to the master. It is well known that Von Sauer was a great apologist for Liszt’s music at a time when it seemed to be waning. He often played his music at recitals and even edited some of the great man’s music for publication.
After his sojourn at Weimar, Sauer began his career as a soloist in earnest. He travelled extensively throughout Europe and Scandinavia. He reached the shores of America in 1899 under the sponsorship of the Knabe Piano Company. According to contemporary accounts, he made a huge impression in the Metropolitan Opera House. In 1908 he returned to the States for a massive 40-concert tour.
Emil Von Sauer’s musical career began to wane in the nineteen thirties. This was not due to a decline in his technique. It was simply the fact that new pianists were coming to the fore, a different style of playing was in vogue and a new repertoire was developing.
Von Sauer found time to teach. He lectured at the Meisterschule fur Klavierspiel at the Vienna Conservatory for six years, between 1901 and 1907. After a break working in Dresden, he returned to Vienna as principal of the Meisterschule. He remained there for six years. At the age of 69 he did another decade of teaching; only his death brought an end to his recitals and his master classes. He was enthusiastic about the developments in recording techniques and made a large number of recordings of both his own music and those of the great romantic pianists. We have some forty works recorded on 78s. Some of these have been released on CD.
One of his great achievements was the editing of the piano works of the masters. Brahms, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Schumann and Liszt all came in for his editorial treatment. Many people still use these editions to this day.
Emil von Sauer found time and energy to marry his childhood sweetheart, Alice Elb; He had nine children in this marriage. After Alice’s death he married a one-time student — Angelica Morales (1911-96). She was a Mexican pianist who became a noted interpreter of Bach. She bore him two sons.
The Austrian Emperor awarded the composer with a knighthood in 1917. It was at this time he adopted the prefix “von.” Emil Von Sauer died on 27th April 1942.
The above outline of Emil’s life reveals that he was primarily a performer rather than a composer. Yet it is with the compositions we are concerned with in this review. The first thing to realise is that most of his music would be regarded as “light’. This “light” music is coloured by a virtuosic quality that is second to none. There is no work on these discs that changes the direction of musical “progress’. There is little in the way of experimentation; there is no dalliance with extreme chromaticism or tone rows. It is not possible to easily chart out a chronological development of his works. His style remains largely the same throughout his active life as a composer. He published no new works after 1932.
The Piano Sonatas
Von Sauer wrote two fine piano sonatas within a year of each other. No.1 in D major was composed in 1903 and No. 2 in Eb major in 1904. Two years previously he had composed the two piano concertos. One of these No.1 in E minor is available on Hyperion (CDA66790) and is well worth exploring. So Von Sauer was no stranger to large-scale works. The programme notes rightly point out that at that time it was the practice for pianist/composers to produce “salon” music for use at their concerts; perhaps as encores. However some of the great pianist of the time went on to compose concerti and sonatas. We mentioned Eugen d’Albert earlier. Then there was Paderewski and Scharwenka. The greatest of them all was Rachmaninov. Of course the last named master is regarded as primarily a composer nowadays; yet many of his piano performances are available on CD from old recordings or piano rolls. Yet Rachmaninov is the one of the above named composers who has managed to establish a piano sonata in the standard repertoire — his 2nd. However, even this was made famous in a cut down version firstly by the composer and then by Horowitz. It is only recently that the “uncut” version has become the “norm.” His 1st Sonata is virtually unknown to any save “specialists.”
Naturally it would be invidious to compare Von Sauer and Rachmaninov. The works by and large inhabit a different sound world. However there are often overlaps of style and form. Both were accomplished pianists who brought their outstanding keyboard techniques to the manuscript paper.
Von Sauer’s 1st Sonata is cast in four movements. It is actually quite a lengthy piece, lasting over half an hour. The first movement is in sonata form. It opens quietly with a lovely meditative section that is tonally unstable — however the pace increases and the tension builds up. This music is a long way away from some of his lighter pieces. There is much greater contrast of themes and material. Much use I made of triplets that were apparently Von Sauer’s favourite pianistic device. Some of the pianistic writing is reminiscent of Rachmaninov. Already we have the “Hollywood” romanticisms that were to become such a feature of the cinema in years to come. There is struggle in the pages of this first movement. This not easy music — either technically or emotionally. Yet neither is it disturbing. Actually it is very good. All the hallmarks of romantic pianism of this period are present. It is a gift to those of us who love the bitter sweet, slightly sentimental sound of the Grand Piano in full flight. It is fair to say that the first movement of this unjustly neglected work is its key and core. The remaining movements are attractive; yet they do not add anything in the way of new revelation. The Scherzo, which has considerable rhythmic vitality, is followed by the Intermezzo that seems at times to sound like “A Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square” as played by Felix Mendelssohn. That is no facetious comment — it is actually truly beautiful. The last movement, Tempo Giusto is an excellent Theme with Variations; it could certainly stand on its own if it were to be excerpted.
The 2nd Piano Sonata is in some ways similar to the first essay. It is a large-scale piece lasting just under half an hour. It uses the same sonata-allegro form for its first movement. Yet this second sonata is much richer in its romanticism. It is more reminiscent of Rachmaninov and Scharwenka. Once more all the pianistic devices of the composer are pressed into service. Von Sauer loves the use of triplets and their juxtaposition against quavers and semi-quavers. There is some very interesting contrapuntal writing in this opening movement — which perhaps is more in the style of Busoni than the Russian or Polish masters. Often there are abrupt key signature changes and these do not necessarily follow changes in tempo or in mood. There is an extremely attractive “second” theme. It is architecturally a fascinating exercise of the composer’s art. There is so much of interest in these pages. It is played here with a mastery that never ceases to amaze.
The slow movement has considerable charm of its own. It is a “nocturne,” very much in the style of Chopin. It is progressive in its development. Each “repetition” of the theme is accompanied by a more and more intricate weave of piano figuration. At first it sounds quite easy. By the end of the movement it must stretch the players skill to the limit in controlling the “pianissimo.”
The Scherzo lifts the long shadows of the previous movement. This is a moderately good example of the “minuet and trio” form. The “trio” itself can only be described as wistful, although I feel the scherzo part leaves a little to be desired.
The last movement is billed as a “rondo” — yet the programme notes suggest it is more like a sonata allegro form without the usual “development” section. This is a lovely movement; nothing barnstorming here. It is well written, and calling for all the technique the pianist can provide. There are a number of interesting modulations that give this piece an unsettled feel to it. Once again, in some of the contrasting sections of the “rondo” the more “romantic” pianism is to the fore. This is a fine conclusion to an unfairly neglected masterwork by this underrated composer. It should get the occasional airing in the recital rooms.
The Concert Etudes
The first thing to grasp about these thirty etudes is that they are not a unified work. They are not meant to be played one after the other. In fact I would strongly recommend that the best way to approach these pieces is by selection — one or two at a time. Only then will their true worth become apparent. There is danger that the listener becomes sated by the complex pianistic sound. Eventually it could just wash over them in a mass of notes.
There are two types of study in this collection; those designed to express technical competencies in a given aspect and good old-fashioned salon pieces with highly evocative and descriptive names. It is fair to say that the “genre” pieces are no technical pushover. The technical works explore trills, arpeggios, staccato, octaves and figurations. The titles of some of these etudes are quite fascinating; many of them inhabit a world of gentle eroticism. For example we have a charming piece called “The Sirens.” And then there is “Frisson de Feuilles” and “Murmurs of the Winds” and, of course, “Prelude Erotique.”. All evocative titles, which would be out of place in today’s hard-headed world, yet were extremely popular with audiences at the turn of the twentieth century.
There is even one piece that is called “The Pines of the Villa Medici,” — and one wonders if Ottorino Respighi knew this work when he penned his great Pines of Rome Suite in 1924.
It is not possible to give a detailed study of each of these delightful works in this short review. Suffice to say that they are full of charm, technical wizardry and are joy to listen to. It is to be hoped that some of them find their way into the recital programmes of our great contemporary pianists. Yet somehow I feel that they will continue to be ignored; ours is not an age when a piece entitled “Storms of April” will attract anything other than derision — no matter how perfect the work is. We only need to look at how the more “poetically” titled works of Liszt have faired. How often does an orchestra play any of his tone poems? We sometimes need to forget “programmes” or “implied programmes” when listening to much music of this era. Just sit back and enjoy the notes and the skill of the playing!
There are some twenty-one other works on these four CDs. I must confess that they are of variable quality. Some seem me to be potboilers, and some are little gems. All are well played. Who an resist a title such as “Echo of Vienna” or “Approche de printemps.” Each listener will find his or her own favourite pieces amongst this treasure house of fine salon music. However I cannot but repeat that one must listen to these works in small doses. Obviously one can go at either of the two sonatas at a sitting — however pick out some of the lighter pieces and just enjoy!
There is no doubt that this cycle of piano works by Sauer is a triumph for Oleg Marshev. One can only wonder at the amount of study and preparation that must be necessary for such an enterprise as this. I accept that with this music Marshev is in his element; one need only glance at other works recorded by him on Danacord. There are discs of music by Rachmaninov, Rubinstein and the Langgaards” Piano Concerti (which I had the huge pleasure of reviewing). But his abilities are not limited to the works of the piano romantics. There is the complete piano works of Prokofiev (that must be a revelation — if these discs are anything to go by. I’ve got my fingers crossed!) and there is an unusual disc of the complete piano works of Richard Strauss — that is an area beyond my musical ken — however I imagine it would be quite fascinating.
So this talented pianist is able to give us a completely convincing version of these piano works by Emil Von Sauer. Even a cursory “listen” to these pieces shows that Marshev views these works seriously. It would have been all too easy to play the “salon” pieces in a less than serious manner — almost to make fun of them. For many of them are “period” pieces for which the demand has long since disappeared. Yet Oleg Marshev plays all these works with skill, technical mastery and I think personal pleasure. One gets the feeling that he is enjoying them.
Once again Danacord have produced a fine series of CDs. There is no doubt that these recordings fill an important gap in the repertoire of romantic piano music. It is courageous of them to take a risk with this music. They have been generous in their programmes. The whole gamut of Emil Von Sauer’s artistry has been covered. As usual with this CD company the discs have a nice feel to them. They look good! The record sleeves contain a number of rare photographs of Sauer and also reproductions of some of the covers of his sheet music. The liner notes are adequate — I would have appreciated more about this interesting composer. However I guess that there is so little academic material available for writers to help with forming their judgement and providing contextual background information. The sound quality is second to none.
As a reviewer I have nothing to compare these discs to. However, I believe that we have a treasure here that should not be lightly ignored. True there are no barnstorming works here. Just enjoyable, well written and well played music a touch on the sentimental side.
For all those listeners who love Chopin, Liszt, Mendelssohn and Rachmaninov, this is well worth investing in. I would place this music in the same class as the piano works of Scharwenka, Bortkievich and Rubinstein.
If I had to pick a favourite piece or movement from these CD, it would be almost impossible. I have not had time to fully assimilate four and half hours of piano music. However, I would probably plump for the first movement, the Allegro Moderato, of the 2nd Piano Sonata. Yet again some of the lesser pieces have a magic of their own. It is an impossible choice.