An unusual faculty recital was held at Vassar College’s Skinner Hall this past Saturday. While not well-publicized this concert was of enormous interest for those who love music. Cellist Sophie Shao and pianist Thomas Sauer offered both an unusual program as well superb musicianship.
They opened with the ever-popular Rondo, Op. 94 by Dvorák, famously composed on Christmas Day by Antonín Dvorák who wanted a worthy showpiece for his esteemed cellist playing in the quartet they were touring in. This piece often appears in cello competitions because it demands a blend of rigorous technique and soulful emotion—qualities that shone in Shao’s resonant, buoyant sound. Shao performs on the cello that Pablo Casals once played.
Dvorák’s Silent Woods, Op. 68, evoked an atmosphere of meditative contemplation. The stage was set for the World Première of Robert Cuckson’s 2016 Sonata for Cello and Piano. Cuckson (who was present in the audience), born in the U.S., was raised in Australia and educated in England. His sonata was in three movements: it began with the slow development of infatuation between piano and cello; a romance between the instruments developed; a march, which became sarcastic and satiric ensued, then the instruments argued about the direction of each digression, each musical idea, ever more furiously, until they ironically echoed with bitterness their very first notes from the opening movement. This comic portrayal of the arc of infatuation, romance, and divorce was adroitly played by both performers with the exasperated lower register of Shao’s fiercely sawing cello evoking mirthful laughter in me and smiles in other audience members too timid to laugh. Despite the obvious literalism of the program, this was quite an amusing outing worthy of a second hearing.
After a brief intermission, Sauer played Scherzo No. 4 in E major for piano by Frédéric Chopin. Many commentators declare the recording Stanislav Richter to be definitive, yet Benjamin Grosvenor has recently challenged the Richter legend with a light, lyrical, cleanly gossamer version that has been much acclaimed. Yet Sauer delivered a different interpretation rooted in Chopin’s life.
On May 28, 1842, Chopin’s lover George Sand wrote a letter acclaiming two new mazurkas by Chopin to be “worth more than twenty novels.” Yet six weeks later the lovers were both ill. George was afflicted with an infected optic nerve and had to wear eyeshades to block sunlight which bestowed baleful headaches as she rushed to complete her latest novel set in Venice and the Czech Republic under the duress of a preposterous deadline.
Chopin was bedridden for nearly two months in the hot summer heat with what may have been strep-throat, his neck swollen bulbously with mucus. He composed the Scherzo, his last and the only one in a major key, in fits-and-starts during this debilitating illness, thinking he was at death’s door. Sauer captured the manic desperation of Chopin’s struggle highlighting the alternation of hope and despair, imbuing his performance with desperate improvisational edge.
Sauer’s interpretation and performance was extraordinary; he brought out the passionate interior of the artist defying defeat through dramatic suspension, hopeful glissando runs, and surprise asymmetry that emphasized episodic construction. This was the aspiration, agony, and ecstasy of Chopin at work despite debility. Sauer revealed the process of composition as a struggle of incremental organic growth, stripping away the imaginary setting of the polite social salon by focusing on the isolated crisis of creation: the Polish folk tune of romance, upon which the Scherzo was based, became a living monument of Chopin’s inspirational love for music itself under Sauer’s fingers. Will there be a recording? I don’t want to listen to anyone else’s interpretation.
Alluding to the difficulties of love, Shao re-appeared and they performed Ludwig van Beethoven’s Sonata for Cello and Piano in C Major, Op. 102, no.1. In four movements, piano and cello conducted a civilized conversation arriving at flirtation. Each instrument had civilized things to say, yet their conversation never achieved anything—as they appeared to politely “talk” at cross-purposes without understanding each other. No solution to this quandary was achieved: the composition merely ended.
What had recently occurred in Beethoven’s tumultuous life was this: Countess Marie Erdödy, to whom Beethoven had dedicated several of his chamber works, admired Beethoven’s music, and had invited him to live at her home as a lodger. Beethoven discovered that the Countess had been paying his manservant for sexual favors. In a rage, Beethoven moved out and rented a room in a brothel. This rarely performed Sonata is a satiric exercise about good music that goes nowhere.
While the evening’s program had begun with convention, it had suddenly veered off into the perilous terrain of love and art. I’ve always admired the subtle connections of Sauer’s recital programs, yet this seemingly modest concert was a giant event.