Arbiter Records 114

Emil von Sauer

1940 Live recordings: Amsterdam & Vienna

Track List

“Sauer is a genuine troubador of the piano.”

–Eduard Hanslick

1-3 Schumann Piano concerto in A minor, with Willem Mengelberg and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra

4-12 solo recital, Vienna

In 2014 this CD was remastered for downloading that contains an additional bonus track.

  1. Schumann Piano Concerto in A minor: I
  2. Schumann Piano Concerto in A minor: I
  3. Schumann Piano Concerto in A minor: I
  4. Schubert Impromptu op. 90, no. 3 in G flat (played in G)
  5. Chopin Bolero
  6. Chopin Nocturne in E flat, op. 9, no. 2
  7. Chopin Etude in C minor, op. 25, no. 12
  8. Schumann Fantasiestücke op. 12: Traumeswirren
  9. Sganbati Minuetto vecchio
  10. Sauer Piano Sonata no. 1: Intermezzo
  11. Sauer Spieluhr
  12. Sauer Espenlaub
  13. bonus download track: Chopin Valse in e, op. posth.

Sauer is that rare bird, a pianist who boasts not only the solid science of the German school, but also a subtle Slavic strain in his playing. He played Bach, Beethoven, Schumann, and Brahms with deep, unaffected sentiment, healthy Teutonic sentiment; but let him loose in Liszt, Chopin, or the Russians, and a second temperament came to view. I puzzled over this anomaly for years, wondering how a North German – hard-headed Hamburger – could spin such a many-colored web of exotic music.

– James Huneker

The art of Emil von Sauer (1862-1942) distinguishes him as one of the nineteenth century’s most inspired musicians, his recordings vividly imparting a nobility of spirit which enlivens all the music he played. While Sauer was born in Hamburg, Germany, his Scottish mother was a pianist from the Gordon family, daughter of a painter well known at the time. Sauer’s mother had been a pupil of Ludwig Deppe and was her son’s first teacher. The young Sauer’s awakening to music came about in an unexpected way. In his as yet untranslated autobiography, Meine Welt, he recalled:
“It was one of the evenings which our family was spending with the Lundt’s that I performed the Polacca by Weber in a mood which stunned a numerous audience and incidentally myself. Without being, as I thought, in the least equal to its technical demands, I had spent several days previously painfully learning the piece. Suddenly I began to play as if a burst of inspiration had come upon me; like one metamorphosed, oblivious of surroundings, with a free, fiery diction. Chords which I had supposed out of reach of my fingers I suddenly caught up by the fistful and flung off with queer confidence. Runs and trills rippled off my fingers’ ends as if they had always been accustomed to the exercise. The whole performance sounded with a dignity, with a voice of solemn exultation. What mutation might this be? It looked like witchcraft or madness. At last when the twelve-year-old youngster rose from the stool with flushed cheeks and in a feverish excitement, it was without the least idea of what had taken place. Now I hold the solution of the riddle. Like a tropical plant languishing in an alien soil, then transplanted to its native loam, I found the one thing needful. It was the publicity, the largeness of the room, the sense of a listening audience, rows of faces, which filled me with the sense of power. Unconsciously, in the glow of interpretation, I felt the calling of an inborn talent, of the virtuoso. There in the sultry atmosphere of the concert room I breathed new life; the fetters fell from my limbs, and my flagging wings spread for a soaring flight. That evening I crossed the border into a new phase of my career. Suddenly a passionate love of music fired me and without further urging on my mother’s part I devoted my leisure hours to the instrument. The slope of the raised cover no longer filled me with loathing. The black monster had become my trusty friend.”

In the winter of 1877, the fifteen-year-old Emil Sauer heard Anton Rubinstein play:
“To describe the effect his playing had on me is impossible. Shortly before this I had heard Mme. Schumann perform her husband’s pianoforte concerto and Hans von Bulow, the five last sonatas of Beethoven, considering myself greatly edified by the reverential, the rigidly objective interpretations. But Rubinstein! What a difference! His spontaneous, lyrical utterance smote me into ecstasy. Mozart’s A-minor Rondo, some variations by Haydn, Kreisleriana and Fantasiestucke by Schumann, Liszt’s transcriptions of Schubert’s songs – they all began to live from that time. Scarcely daring to breathe, I listened to this revelation. Not a tone, not a nuance escaped my ear. It all seemed as if a new light had broken over the world, a new voice to interpret an hitherto unintelligible world.

“As the great master played, something seemed to break within me; music, everything took on a new meaning to me; the bonds of my soul were loosened, and I knew that, henceforward, come good, come ill, music was to claim me for her own. I ran all the way home, and sitting down to the piano, tried to play as Rubinstein had played.”

Soon afterward, Sauer played for Anton Rubinstein, beginning with “a short prelude to accustom my hand to the instrument – then the bell-like first triad in F major – the opening of Bach’s Italian Concerto, and I felt my fetters drop away. Consciousness of Rubinstein’s presence was no constraint, it was an inspiration. My mother has often told me how, after a few minutes Rubinstein’s face brightened, and how he followed with quickened interest my performance of Beethoven’s F-minor sonata and several pieces of Liszt and Chopin. As I finished, Rubinstein came forward and kissed me on the forehead. Then, turning to my mother, he said there was no further doubt as to what my calling should be.”

Anton Rubinstein advised Sauer to study with his brother Nicholas, a pedagogue considered Anton’s equal as a pianist: “I give you Emil; make a great pianist of him.” Sauer learned that Anton had arranged a full scholarship for his studies in Russia. In Moscow he met Alexander Siloti, a pupil of Rubinstein who became a close friend.

Of his lessons in Russia, Sauer wrote:
“Without . . . blind hero worship, I can say that Nicholas Rubinstein never had an equal as a teacher. It was the power of his personality, a super-human insight, which enabled him to diagnose talent. Following the motto: ‘one rule won’t fit all cases,’ he treated each individual case by a method adapted to that case alone. No one understood so well as he how much more can be accomplished in four hours of thoughtful, concentrated effort than in four days of dull drudgery. Said he, ‘Four hours a day, equally divided between forenoon and afternoon; anything more than that is useless. Nothing is to be accomplished by mechanical finger exercises. Worse still, you risk the utter extinction of what little spirit and intelligence you happen to possess. Mechanical exercises are aimless and vain unless the head is working, too. Head and hand must work together. And even so, you must take care not to unlearn in the fourth hour what you learned in the first.’ The conclusion of fifteen years of practice finds me increasingly grateful for the hours of useless labor which I have been saved.”

The sudden death of Nicholas Rubinstein, which Sauer suspected was a murder resulting from jealousy, came during Sauer’s second year (1881) in Moscow. The conservatory Nicholas had founded rapidly deteriorated.

After deciding against studies with Leschetizky, Sauer returned to Hamburg. With his family unable to assist his career, Sauer moved to London, enduring a poverty little relieved by giving lessons and playing for indifferent listeners. But his situation was reversed when the artist H. B. Brabazon became his patron, supporting Sauer and arranging a tour in Spain and Italy. In Rome, Sauer met Liszt’s companion, the Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein, who insisted that he approach Liszt and attend his master classes in Weimar.

In 1884, Sauer and Brabazon arrived in Leipzig and were received by Liszt: “To begin with, the conversation turned to our impressions of Spain, our experiences in Rome, and the Princess’s state of health. Then he said: ‘My expectations are truly pitched very high – the Princess writes to tell me that she is quite delighted with your playing’ (here he addressed my patron in French) ‘and also the selflessness with which you, my dear Sir, have interested yourself in this talent. That is noble, and high-minded disinterested behavior is today becoming ever rarer.’ Brabazon beamed! He then invited us to accompany him that afternoon to the general rehearsal of his Christus, which was to be performed the next day. ‘Tomorrow, too, we must improvise a brief session at Bluthner’s’, he said in conclusion, ‘for I am really curious to hear you.’ ”

At the Weimar master-classes, Sauer met Arthur Friedheim, Moriz Rosenthal, Alfred Reisenauer, and his Russian colleague Siloti. A diary of the lessons by a student, August Gollerich, noted the following performances by Sauer: 1884:

May 31. Sgambati: Piano Concerto op.15; 1st movement (with Alfred Reisenauer at the second piano)
June 5th. Sgambati concerto: 2nd and 3rd movements (idem)
June 11. Schumann: Toccata
June 13. Bellini-Liszt: Reminiscences de Norma [Liszt then played part, went into detail on accents, correct embellishments, advised on dynamics]
June 20. X. Scharwenka: Piano Concerto (with Reisenauer at the second piano)
July 2. Schumann: Novelettes from op. 21 [Liszt “insisted on great fire and very clean playing”]
July 4. Chopin: Etude in A minor, Op.25, no.11 [Liszt commented: “Play the basses loud and make the rhythm emerge sharply.”] 1885:
July 3. A. Rubinstein: Piano Concerto no.5 (with Friedheim at the second piano)
July 6. Sgambati: Piano Concerto op.15 (Miss Mettler, solo; Sauer at the second piano)

Liszt’s American pupil Carl Lachmund kept a journal of his time with Liszt and noted, “Emil Sauer was another newcomer of high promise. He played with splendid rhythm.” Lachmund also points out “at another lesson Sauer played the Schumann Toccata, and splendidly.”

Sauer’s experience at Liszt’s classes was tainted by the presence of many “creatures devoid of talent” who abused Liszt’s generosity and took time away from “men of ability, of true devotion to Liszt, [who] were obliged modestly to take a back seat or were shoved aside by toadies and sycophants.” Yet, on one occasion, Sauer heard Liszt play Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata for violin and piano, and he afterwards screamed in delight while turning cartwheels, as noted in Arthur Friedheim’s autobiography. Perhaps this was the most significant musical impression of Liszt he would receive. The composer was fond of him and often invited Sauer over for a game of whist.

In 1901, Sauer reflected on Liszt’s teaching:
“It should not be imagined that this consisted of lessons in the usual sense; rather they were like university lectures, which anyone could attend or cut at pleasure. Although they were interesting for laymen and duffers, just as is any apercu from the mouth of a brilliant man, such persons learnt as little as anyone does who attends a university without prior grammar-school education.”

Sauer was invited to Paris in 1934 by Marguerite Long to give master classes. After decades of prominence and recognition as a Liszt pupil, he offered a more mythic view of Weimar:
“Liszt did not give piano lessons in the way it had been done from Czerny to the present; rather, he would wax eloquent of the high forms of art. . . similar to the way that Greek philosophers passed their ideas on to their disciples without being teachers.”

He also noted how tempi in Liszt’s music had changed:
“You should have heard how [Liszt] played the Campanella: with what generosity he attacked the octave passages. . . and with what refinement he played the bell . . . How different appear to me the Campanellas that I hear today, which always seem to aim at breaking speed records.”

Sauer’s international career began with a Berlin debut in 1885, playing before the Imperial family, continuing until two weeks before his sudden death in 1942 when his final performance was of Schumann’s Piano Concerto, with Hans Knappertsbusch and the Vienna Philharmonic.

Events in his youth and international fame had prompted Sauer to write an autobiography in 1901, at the age of thirty-nine; less is known of his remaining forty years. Sauer also taught in Dresden and, from 1911, in Vienna. Michal Hambourg, the British pianist and daughter of Mark Hambourg, saw Sauer at the 1938 Queen Elizabeth Competition in Brussels, where he served on the jury: A mane of white hair appeared above a black cape lined with red satin. He was surrounded by beautiful young women. His male pupils found him less pleasant, referring to him as being truly “sour”. Among his prominent students were Stefan Askenase, Elly Ney, Helene Morsztyn, and Angelica Morales – an extraordinarily talented Mexican pianist who became his second wife. The playing of both Morales and Ney has much in common with Sauer’s unique style. His significant role in European concert life was such that Bela Bartok attended his Budapest recitals and wrote of them as major musical events. Sauer frequently appeared as soloist with conductors such as Nikisch, Weingartner, Furtwangler, and Mengelberg.

Emil Sauer’s pianism remained at a high level throughout his life: his finest recordings were made in 1940, at age seventy-eight. One rare document, a concert performance of Schumann’s piano concerto with Mengelberg (published here) reveals Sauer before an audience. He may have been influenced by having heard Clara Schumann perform this work. His interpretation is relaxed yet dramatic, the antithesis of the high-strung excitement generated by Alfred Cortot, who championed this concerto. After Sauer, other performances sound simplified into one-dimensional dramatic gestures.

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1989, research led to the discovery of a thirty-five-minute radio program recorded by Sauer for Austrian Radio (RAVAG) in 1940. At the end of World War II, the Russian army brought numerous war trophies to Moscow, among them European radio recordings. The performance heard here by Sauer of Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat, op. 9, no.2, was once published in the LP era by Melodya. Pursuit of this enigmatic recording led to the complete broadcast session, at which Sauer played works in the same sequence as in the latter part of his recital programs during his last years. As his studio recordings are of miscellaneous works, this RAVAG session allows us for the first time to hear a continuity in Sauer’s programming and a provides a fuller understanding of his artistry, especially since most of the compositions played here were not commercially recorded by him.

Schubert’s Impromptu in G-flat major, op. 90, no.3, was often played in G major by 19th-century pianists. Sauer follows this practice and uses Liszt’s edition, which adds octave transpositions of chords and alters some harmonies. A Roman pianist, composer and pedagogue, Sgambati had been a significant pupil of Liszt who had introduced the 19th-century Italian public to Beethoven and Wagner. Sauer gave an early performance of Sgambati’s piano concerto in Rome under the composer’s direction and possessed a manuscript copy of the work with detailed markings made by Sgambati. The nonagenarian daughter of Sgambati recently donated his archive to the Biblioteca Casanatense in Rome, including over 90 letters from Sauer.

Sauer’s life and art are still in need of research. These live documents help recover a musical genius unique to his time and are vital in providing our troubled culture with an entrance to the lost world he inhabited.

Allan Evans © 1998.