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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Danacord

 

Emil von SAUER (1862 – 1942)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor (1901)
Cinq Morceaux difficulté moyenne (1909)
Petite Scene de Ballet (1908)
Menuet (Vieux style) (1904)
Polka de Concert (1895)
Galop de Concert (Etude Galop) (1899)
Oleg Marshev, piano
Aarhus Symphony Orchestra/James Loughran
Recorded at Frichsparken, Aarhus, Denmark September 2002
DANACORD DACOCD 596 [66.35]


This CD was a sort of desideratum for me. I have known the First Concerto since it was released by Hyperion (CDA 66790 – coupled with Scharwenka’s Fourth). Ever since then, I have been waiting for this Second Concerto. Rightly or wrongly in my mind I had built up this work into a masterpiece in waiting. The truth is a little more complicated; the headline being that this is an excellent and even glorious work with a definite weak point in the last movement.

Emil von Sauer was one of those musicians who were accomplished as both soloist and composer. There were a number of virtuosos like him including Hofmann, Godowsky, Busoni, Paderewski and Rachmaninov. Sauer enjoyed a long career of music-making – which also included the preparation of the great editions of Chopin, Brahms and Schumann. I have outlined his life and times in a previous review in this series of Danacord CDs.

The Second Piano Concerto is in four movements which are played without a break. There is much cross-referencing of themes between and amongst these movements. This lends the feeling of a tightly-conceived work. There is also a perceived complexity borne out of the simplicity and vice versa.

The work opens quietly with a tune from a solo oboe. There is a definite oriental feel to this which crops up here and there throughout the work. The piano steals in with a quiet cadenza; however the intensity soon starts to build up. There is a strong chordal passage for piano in dialogue with the orchestra; then an attractive duet between the soloist and a solo trumpet ensues. The pressure slowly builds up with much exciting writing for soloist and band. There is a little relaxation with a more reflective passage before we hear the trumpet and piano once again. Then comes a glorious romantic moment; this is the stuff that makes a ‘romantic’ concerto all that one imagines it should be. There is a reprise of the oboe’s oriental musings before the movement closes with a short chordal coda. This first movement get the work off to a fine start. The playing is beautiful and the balance just about perfect. However I noticed a bit of a hard edge in the recording of some of the passages which is slightly off-putting.

The second movement is a Scherzo and is presented as an interesting argument between the piano and orchestra. Soon a lovely little sequential tune appears on the scene before a much harder theme takes the stage. This is a bit of a clog dance folk-tune which reminds me of something part-way between Grainger’s Handel in the Strand and Ketèlbey’s The Clock and the Dresden Figures. All through this movement we are conscious of a perfect dialectic between soloist and orchestra. A ‘big’ tune is introduced in the last minute or so before the ‘clattering’ returns. Yet the piece ends quite delicately.

The composer drops into the third movement without a pause. This is, quite definitely the heart of the concerto. Soon a big tune announces itself – at first in the orchestra. This is truly stunning. There are a few comments from the woodwind before the piano enters the scene, to discover the tune for itself. This is perfect romantic piano music. Wearing the heart on the sleeve indeed! There is quite a lengthy section for the soloist without the orchestra; however after nearly a minute the band creeps in on the scene. It is sustained and restrained but soon, under control, builds into a lovely climax. There is a quieter, more reflective, section before the fine, powerful reprise of the main theme. The piano supports this music with complex arpeggios. There is a definite Tristan feel to this overwhelming music. It is music to lie back with and just let wash over you. Then the tension is off. The composer brings a number of reminiscences of past music before the listener. Soon the preparation begins for the transition to the last movement. I have no doubt that this movement is one of the ‘hidden’ gems of the piano concerto genre. If people only knew about it, it would be Top of the Classic FM Pops. It is as good as anything and better than most in presenting sheer musical enjoyment, passion and emotion.

Perhaps the final movement is not the most impressive follow-on, after having been to heaven and back in the previous one. Yet the character of the first theme is simple and forthright in contrast to what has preceded it. There is a new romantic theme introduced before the orchestra take a long section without the soloist. Then the piano begins summing up the concerto; I am not sure how effective this is. There is an edge to this music that jars slightly with what has gone before. Material is tossed back and forth – full of allusion to and quotes of earlier material. There is a kind of powerful cadenza before the movement concludes with a nod to the opening pages of the work. I feel that the inspiration has run out. This movement is not of the same quality as those that have preceded it. I have listened to it a few times and still feel that it is the weakest link in this otherwise great work

This concerto is a good example of the Romantic Piano Concerto. I am against excerpting movements from works – however I feel that the slow movement would stand alone as a classic example of its genre.

The Cinq Morceaux de difficulté moyenne or Five Pieces of Moderate Difficulty can be passed over reasonably quickly. These attractive numbers were published in 1909 and were dedicated to the composer’s daughter Dolly. This work has been billed as Sauer’s Second Suite. This first was the Suite Moderne which has been previously issued by Danacord. From a concert pianist’s point of view none of these five pieces are terribly difficult. There is considerable contrast between these movements and interest is never lost. The first is an attractive March – which actually is quite long for a character piece; it lasts for nearly six minutes. The second is an interesting little study which is just sheer pleasure to listen to. The Valse Lente is the heart of this suite. Typical of its genre, it is quite wistful without being overtly sentimental. It is played with simplicity and subtlety. The fourth piece, a Berceuse, nods to Brahms and is none the worse for this debt. The last piece is a Humoresque which sounds to me much more than just moderately difficult! It is chromatic, thereby contrasting with what has gone before. Of the five pieces it is the most ‘modern’ sounding. However with the ‘trio’ section we are on more traditional ground. These are salon pieces and deserve the occasional airing.

The last four works on this disc seem to me to be a tidying up of odds and ends in the Sauer Catalogue. They are gleaned from over a period of about ten years between 1899 for the Galop de Concert and 1908 for the Straussian (Johann) Petite Scène de Ballet. The Menuet is somewhat Schubertian in its appeal. The Polka de Concert is actually quite long work; it is much more than salon music. The complexity and sound-world make it quite a major contribution to the genre. It is easy to write this kind of music off as being period pieces, music of its day; yet for sheer pleasure and enjoyment it cannot be bettered. We have a fine pianist bringing his technique to composition and leaving a legacy of well wrought miniatures. Nowadays we tend to prefer weightier piano works at our recitals. The only space for ‘salon’ works is the encore. However in Sauer’s time, at the turn of the twentieth century, there was less aversion to downright popular tunes in the recital room. When listening to these pieces it helps us if we bear this bit of contextual history in mind.

I have no doubt that this Second Piano Concerto by Sauer is a triumph for Oleg Marshev. It shows an amazing amount of dedication to take a totally unknown piano concerto and prepare it for performance. There is no doubt either that with this music Marshev is in his element; the whole Romantic Piano Concerto thing seems to appeal to his big and generous style. Just look at his listings in the Danacord catalogue. There are discs of piano concerti by Rachmaninov, Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky. He has explored the Hexameron by Liszt, Thalberg and others. But his abilities are not limited to the works of the well known piano romantics. There are the complete piano works of Prokofiev and there is an unusual disc of the complete piano works of Richard Strauss – both of which I have had the pleasure of reviewing.

This highly talented pianist has given us a wonderfully convincing version of this Second Piano Concerto. He plays this work with affection and with total commitment. He takes this romantic music seriously without any condescension. The same applies to the other works on this disc. It would have been all too easy to play the ‘salon’ pieces in a less than serious manner – almost to make fun of them. Marshev plays all these works with proficiency, great technical mastery and pure pleasure. I certainly get the feeling that he is enjoying himself.

The orchestra under James Loughran play extremely well and together with the soloist provide a totally convincing performance of this ‘lost’ work. I did detect a little hardness in the recording which gave an edge to some of the piano figuration. But generally this CD sounds great.

The programme notes could be a little more extensive – especially for a composer who is little known and for whom there are few works of reference. However the disc is generally well presented and together with the other five in the Sauer series makes up a very interesting and attractive set.

This is an excellent CD which fills an important gap in the repertoire of the romantic piano concerto - essential listening. Marshev’s playing, is, as usual, brilliant.

John France



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