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And what is music?

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun Jan 29th, 2017

Thomas Sauer

As part of Vassar’s Modfest Festival, Thomas Sauer performed a solo piano concert at Skinner Hall Sunday afternoon. Sauer began with Joseph Haydn’s “Sonata in C major” from 1789, a sonata whose reputation lurks near the bottom of Haydn’s many acclaimed sonatas. Playing from memory, Sauer performed the piece slightly slower than the traditional tempo, investing the first movement with Romantic, meditative melancholy, impressing an ellipsis-like quality to pauses in the piece that elevated the Andante a couple of notches over traditional interpretations; the Rondo sounded like late Haydn when he had moved to reintegrate Romanticism with Classicism—this faster paced piece offered contrast in that it eschewed the mood of self-consciousness that burdened the Andante.   

Sauer then performed 5 selections from contemporary Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen. All five pieces ( 1984-1998) were quirky self-consciously modern mood pieces in a Romantic lyrical vein, yet they carried an extroverted assurance in that they sounded so grounded in imitating nature as to approach “natural fundamentalism.” The last piece entitled “Boogie-Woogie” contained a propulsive boogie-woogie rhythm and drive, yet it was also abstracted into something that was not boogie-woogie.  

Stephen Hartke’s “Sonata for Solo Piano” (1998) melded modernism with classicism, just as Haydn’s second movement synthesized Romantic and Classical. Simple contemporary lyrical themes underwent cyclic variations as in Classicism, yet the variations were unexpected surprises, whirling circles within circles. I preferred Hartke’s Classical synthesis to Abrahamsen’s Romantic literalism, just as I preferred Haydn’s more abstract musical Rondo to his languorous Andante.  

After intermission Sauer performed Ludwig van Beethoven’s Sonata in C minor, op. 111. Here was an epic synthesis of the simple and profound, the Romantic and Classical, as Sauer’s fingers flew across the keyboard pounding elemental bass (da-da-dum) and ethereally rapid twirling high notes. Astonishment descended, such astonishment that I began to wonder if music itself could be sane, if Beethoven was sane, if I was sane, if the audience was sane, or if there was any sanity in Nature. We had entered into the transcendent. Something similar happens in William Faulkner’s novel The Hamlet (about a third of the way into the novel when one realizes that the characters are insane, that perhaps the author insane, that maybe you are insane, and that humanity is probably insane). The epic travail in C major with its heightened ascents and sudden descents concluded with an unstressed C-major chord, the most common sound in all music, yet by that time it sounded uncommon.

One could only conclude that there was good entertaining music in different temporal periods and varied musical styles, but there is the ecstasy of Beethoven, who inhabits a level of music above all music. The enraptured audience of about 150 demanded two bows. I imagine that some in the audience drove home wondering who they were. (I have a recording of the Beethoven piece by a noted pianist; I now consider that recording rubbish—and that is why one needs to attend live concerts.)