EMIL VON SAUER (1862 - 1942)
Of all the Liszt pupils who made records, Sauer is the pianist whose discs are the most successful. His first teacher was his mother, and although his parents had chosen the career of a lawyer for their son, his life took a dramatic turn at the age of fourteen when he attended a recital by Anton Rubinstein. He had already heard Clara Schumann play her husband’s Piano Concerto and Hans von Bülow play the last five sonatas of Beethoven, yet Rubinstein’s playing had an extraordinary effect on the boy. Shortly afterward Sauer played for the great pianist, whose advice was for him to study with his brother Nicolas Rubinstein. He did so (on a full scholarship provided by Anton Rubinstein) at the Moscow Conservatory from 1879 until Rubinstein’s death in 1881. Sauer then gave concerts in Germany and made his debut in London in 1882 where, curiously, he had no success. Fortunately, whilst playing at a party in London, Sauer was heard by a wealthy amateur painter named Hercules Brabazon who became his patron. They toured together, Brabazon painting and Sauer playing. Sauer appreciated painting and his maternal grandfather, Julius Gordon, had been a portrait painter.
Whilst in Italy, Sauer met the Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein who provided an introduction to Liszt enabling Sauer to travel to Weimar to attend the summer master-classes of 1884 and 1885. Sauer gave varying opinions regarding the value of the tuition he received from Liszt but in 1895 he said, ‘It is not correct to regard me as a pupil of Liszt, though I stayed with him for a few months. He was then very old, and could not teach me much. My chief teacher has been, undoubtedly, Nicolas Rubinstein.’ Sauer made his Berlin debut in January 1885 with the Piano Concerto No.1 in B flat minor Op. 32 by Xaver Scharwenka. From then on he led the life of a successful touring virtuoso and teacher, playing in America in 1898 (his Carnegie Hall debut was in January 1899) and returning in 1908. He also tried his luck with the British public again in 1894 when, at his own risk, he gave no less than eight solo recitals at St James’s Hall. This time he had great success and from November 1894 to March 1895 he gave forty-eight concerts in Britain, twenty-three in London alone.
From 1901 to 1907 Sauer was head of the piano department of the Vienna Conservatory and from 1915 to 1922 he taught at the Advanced Piano School of the Vienna Academy of Music. During the time between these posts he lived in Dresden. He was made a member of the Légion d’honneur, the only other pianist to have received this honour at that time except for Paderewski, Anton Rubinstein and Liszt; and in 1917 he was made an hereditary knight by the Austro-Hungarian monarchy for his services to music, hence the ‘von’ in his name. Sauer was also a composer who wrote numerous short piano pieces as well as two piano concertos (the first recorded in a prizewinning performance by Stephen Hough in 1994), two piano sonatas and twenty-four concert studies. His first wife bore him nine children and after her death he married one of his students, Angelica Morales; she was twenty eight, he was seventy seven; they had two children. He also edited for Peters Edition twelve volumes of the works of Liszt, two of Brahms, plus some Schumann and Franck; and for Schott, the complete works of Chopin. His most important pupils were Stefan Askenase, Elly Ney and Jorge Bolet.
Sauer’s playing was elegant and polished, aristocratic, refined and beautiful. He possessed a great dignity and taste that infused all his recordings. His first discs were made in Spain around 1923 for Regal and include Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12. When he had played this work to Liszt at their first meeting, the composer was delighted and Sauer received a kiss on the forehead. An abridged Carnaval Op. 9 of Schumann gives us the rare opportunity of hearing Sauer in an extended work, whilst his exquisite tone quality is heard in Liszt’s transcription of Mendelssohn’s Auf Flügeln des Gesanges. Recordings made for the German Vox company around 1925 are again all of the highest quality, particularly Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 15. The extraordinary fact is that not only did Sauer have the technique to play anything, he retained this technique right to the end of his career; he was already sixty when his first discs were made. If La Campanella of Liszt sounds slow by today’s standards one should remember what Sauer said concerning this: ‘You should have heard how Liszt played 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.’ Although evident in the acoustic discs, the electrical Odéon recordings from 1928 allow us for the first time to accurately hear Sauer’s glorious tone. The middle section of Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu Op. 66 is ample evidence of this, whilst Chopin’s Waltz Op. 42 and his own Concert Étude Espenlaub are given exemplary performances. The six sides he made for Pathé around 1930 include his own arrangement of the Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and a glorious Chopin Étude Op. 25 No. 7. Between 1938 and 1941 Sauer recorded for Columbia. Both Liszt piano concertos are given stately, noble readings conducted by Weingartner; some Chopin études and a couple of Schubert’s Moments Musicaux are all extremely fine, but the last disc he made in 1941 at the age of seventy-nine is one of the glories of the gramophone. It is of Liszt’s Étude d’exécution transcendante No. 9 Ricordanza. A daunting work to play effectively at any age, Sauer’s lifetime of experience seems distilled into this performance. Poetry, elegance, poise, expression are all here. As the great pianist Josef Hofmann once said, ‘Sauer was a truly great virtuoso.’
A CD issued in 1998 by Arbiter contains a live performance of the Schumann Piano Concerto Op. 54 from 1940 with Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw Orchestra. It is more evidence of Sauer’s supreme artistry, as are the piano solos from a Vienna broadcast of the same year where we can hear him in such works as Chopin’s Bolero, Nocturne in E flat Op. 9 No. 2, and a movement from his own Piano Sonata No. 1.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).