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Musical Transport at Vassar

A Polished Peformance
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Mon Feb 15th, 2016

Thomas Sauer taking his second bow at Vassar.

Thomas Sauer, member of the Vassar College Faculty as well as Mannes College, performed a piano recital this past Sunday at Skinner Hall. His recorded discography is, for his youth, rather long and eclectic. Warming up with J. S. Bach’s Prelude in E-flat major, BWV 852, he proceeded to Ludwig van Beethoven’s Sonata in A-flat major, op. 110, which Beethoven completed on Christmas Day in 1821. Sauer played the rigorous polyphonic fabric with such Romantic, ethereal finesse that I found myself invisibly shifted into a trance, something that occasionally happens to me—a losing of all consciousness, but that embarrassment only happens when the performance soars at a high level. With a start I woke to admire Sauer’s delicate fingering of the keyboard in the flashing fugal conclusion in one of Beethoven’s most sorrowful and transcendent emotional disclosures. Whatever fissure in my psyche that caused me to be lost in another world was healed.

Having played in the European manner by memory, Sauer took a short break to retrieve sheet music for his next piece, Traced Overhead by Thomas Adès, a young leading composer from London. He explained his insecurity by informing us he was to play the premiere of this piece at Lincoln Center next year and we were his rehearsal victims. Once he began playing, it became clear that he wanted the score in order to properly pace the unusual pauses that the music occasionally demanded. Sometimes with new, original work, I don’t know what to make of the piece in question—wanting to dismiss it as an annoyance or wishing to hear it again, so as to arrive at some understanding or judgment. The latter was the case this time. The piece was lyrical, often heading in ironic directions that emphasized polar ends of the keyboard like a funhouse mirror. Amid arcing mathematical abstractions, I found its mellow, splintered rhythms distinctive, unusual, and even at times unpredictable, yet satisfying.

The second half of the program focused on Frédèric Chopin. Sauer played a selection of early work from 1826 to 1831, asking the audience to think about Chopin’s later development as he played another four mirroring pieces from his late work (1842-46). The early pieces were effortlessly delicate yet thin and extroverted, while the latter four were more introspective, explored a wider repertoire of the keyboard, becoming deeply meditative in Nocturne in E-flat major, op. 55, no 2 where Sauer perhaps even surpassed Arthur Rubenstein’s recorded version. The concluding Polonaise in A-flat major, op. 53 from 1842 was a flamboyant showpiece flashing polished satire at military marches and pathos of the unexamined life. While Chopin displayed a fierce youthful ambition to be a social success, he was never a sell-out.

These last two pieces roused the audience to their feet; Sauer was forced to take another brief bow, a ritual in which he appeared to have little interest, although he appeared supremely polite, as he was brightly articulate, and seemingly effortlessly accomplished. Check out the YouTube video below of Sauer player an avant-garde contemporary piece.