Pianist Thomas Sauer opened his Vassar Faculty Recital in Skinner Hall Sunday afternoon with J.S. Bach’s French Overture, BMV 831 in B minor. Originally composed for two harpsichords, this musical essay in counterpoint remains a favorite of both organists and pianists.
For the Overture preceding seven movements, Sauer managed to conjure the timbre of a harpsichord on his piano, thus delivering a striking, nearly astonishing, opening. The seven following movements presented various French dances. Opening with the Courante, a dance in triple meter which was the current rage. This “running” dance with leaps and jumps was a fashionable courting dance for young people that was expected to describe sweet expectation of a possible match if partners matched in this vigorous dance. Sauer bestowed an elegant atmosphere, uplifting the dance into an abstract marvel.
Bach’s dance counterpoint essay employed dance meters and melodies as he transformed folk dances into high art. Gavotte, Passepied, Sarabande, Bourée, Gigue, and Echo followed. Sometimes pianists take some liberties with these forms (like turning the Saraband into a Romantic work by slowing the tempo) but Sauer stuck to historical perspective, even playing all the optional asides, which is rarely done. Although I have heard this piece a few times over the past year, this was the first time I heard the optional conclusion of “Echo” performed. Sauer played with absorbed intensity for thirty minutes strictly from memory. The rather large audience applauded with vigor and demanded two bows.
After a short break, Sauer played with scores. Piano Variations by Peter Lieberson (1946-2011) possessed a traditional Buddhist program. It opened with a short Prelude called Theme, followed by the four chakras (water, earth, fire, and wind) plus a concluding Coda, that is the four elements plus a fifth element, the fifth element in Buddhism being the special defining element of a Buddhist sect. This structure was familiar to me because I employed that very structure in my epic poem The Enclosed Garden (1991), four years before Lieberson’s composition.
The program structure of the four elements provided varied tempos wherein one could identify rushing water, ocean, rain, snow, and the concluding sound of ice, which explored B minor. Earth had a crescendo that sounded like an earthquake. Fire was mesmerizing as if one was contemplating leaping flames, yet it became conflagration, ending in embers and smoke trailing landscape. Wind flew across the keys with more tempo than theme with occasional glissando. The climatic “Coda” had no tonality, as if it was the Buddhist selfless emptiness that was the invisible ether behind creativity itself, thus deflating the fundamentalism of the program, which was in fact more of an exercise in abstract music. While there are many recordings of Lieberson’s compositions, the only one available of this work remains a digital recording performed by Benjamin Hochman. Like Bach, Lieberson was creating mood and atmosphere around themes. I enjoyed this meditative work that often entered the key of F and would enjoy hearing it played again.
Sauer played three works from the early 1830’s by Chopin in the key of F: Nocturne in F major, Op. 15, no. 1; Étude in F major, Op. 10, no. 8; Mazurka in F minor, Op. 7, no. 3. Sauer plays Chopin with such excellence that I hope he arrives at recording a Chopin album. The early rather long Mazurka written in Vienna (later discovered and published in 1875) was a marvel of various moods bathed in nostalgia for the historical fate of Poland: the lament and elegy for war dead was moving, as was the concluding movement of happy childhood rural recollections.
Chopin’s close friend Franz Liszt was next with Concert Étude in F minor. Liszt had come up with the term, yet it was Chopin who invented the genre in his Op. 10, which was dedicated to Liszt. This was one of three studies published by Liszt in 1833, this one nicknamed “La leggierezza” (The Lightness). The ethereal mood of lightness sounded as if it referred to Lieberson’s ethereal Coda, a welcome change of mood.
Hans Abrahamsen’s “Cascades” from Ten Studies offered yet another example of running keys in arpeggios that rose and fell to varied rhythms and moods.
György Ligeti’s Étude no. 1, Désordre provided the kind of manic showpiece that one might employ as an encore. While it was an exclamation mark of technical skill in bravura pianism, it amounted to more sound and fury than attractive music that could compete with Chopin or Liszt.
Sauer is a phenomenal pianist with an ear for both subtlety and extroverted thunder. He has at times performed with the Juilliard String Quartet and the Brentano String Quartet. Vassar is lucky to have him as teacher and performer.