Thomas Sauer’s “Sovereign Lines”

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ADÈS: Traced Overhead. CHOPIN: 3 Mazurkas, Op. 59. Waltzes in c# min. & Ab min., Op. 64.  Nocturne in E, Op. 62 No. 2. HARTKE: Piano Sonata. ABRAHAMSEN: 10 Studies / Thomas Sauer, pno / Azica AC-71338

Pianist Thomas Sauer is on the faculty of both Vassar College and the Mannes School of Music. His inspiration for making this album, he tells us, was to illustrate the different ways composers have treated the piano, contrasting one of the most famous such writers, Chopin, to three more modern writers. As Sauer put it in the notes,

I could well stand accused of an all-too-common reluctance to break from the past. I prefer to treat with this vexed situation pragmatically, acknowledging the reality that most of my listeners will perceive the new refracted through the lens of the old, and that some will simply be more inclined to keep listening when given a dose of the familiar together with the strange.

Well, that’s not my problem as a listener to this CD; it’s a problem with average classical listeners that they refuse to grow up musically and appreciate the music of their time. But I’m not sure why he chose to only use Chopin as a representative of the past—I would have thought that Beethoven was sufficiently innovative in his own way, and to my mind a far greater composer—but that is what we have here.

As luck would have it, I have a recording of Thomas Adès’ excellent piano suite Traced Overhead by pianist Imogen Cooper, a broadcast performance from the old (and dearly missed) St. Paul Sunday radio program. Cooper, who worked with Adès, plays it with more tension than Sauer does here. His performance is warmer and a bit more relaxed, possibly trying to make the music more likeable to the average listener, but in doing so I’m afraid that he loses some of the work’s structure. Nonetheless, it’s always good to see a recording of this piece because it is so interesting (although quite abstract) and so seldom available on CDs.

Sauer’s Chopin, on the other hand, is played in a fairly conventional manner with the usual little rubato touches and good if standard phrasing. Curiously, the mazurkas chosen sound so much alike that I was bored before he was halfway through them.

Ah, but there is nothing boring about either Stephen Harke’s sonata nor the way Sauer plays it. This is meaty, robust music, proudly and defiantly bitonal from the first crashing chords of the opening movement. I was particularly struck by the lively second movement, which is titled “Epicycles, Tap Dancing and a Soft Shoe,” where Hartke took ragtime rhythms, ran them through the cleansing process of Stravinsky, and came up with insistent but resolutely asymmetrical meters for his tap dancers to work their way through.

I don’t know if it’s just me, but when Sauer returned to Chopin—the famous Waltz in c# minor—it almost sounded comical, as if he were kidding with his audience. I mean, how can anyone take this little fillip for the piano seriously after listening to a mature masterpiece like the Hartke sonata? I sure couldn’t. In fact, after this waltz I just skipped the next two Chopin pieces to get to Hans Abrahamsen’s 10 Studies, which were so much more interesting, even in the very slow opening piece, that I couldn’t wait to hear the rest of them. The second piece, “Sturm” is a chromatic moto perpetuo that runs eventually up the keyboard in the right hand, with the left eventually playing a few pounded notes as its own little storm to urge on the right, while in “Arabeske” he deconstructs the music, splintering it up into little interlocking fragments. A truly fascinating piece.

My assessment of this recital, then, is that Sauer is a good pianist who gives you the full measure of each piece he plays without having personal interpretations. This is, of course, not an altogether bad thing; it makes him a perfect chamber music partner for anyone who has their own view of whatever piece he might play with them; but it should be pointed out that he tries to present what the composer wrote without any specific or individual viewpoint. Recommended for the Hartke and Abrahamsen pieces in particular.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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