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]
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;
Les Délices de Vienne; Le Retour; Couplet sans Paroles; Scherzo
Valse; Boîte a musique; Echo de Vienne.
Volume 3 Piano Sonata No 1 & 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]
Volume 4 Piano Sonata No.2 & other pieces
Courante und trio; Gavotte et Musette; Le Luth; Sérénade
française; Barcarolle; Scherzo pastoral; Serenata veneziana;
Sonata No.2 in Eb major
DANACORD DACD534 [67.11]
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.