German Pianist Pleases at the Sottile

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The College of Charleston ’s vaunted International Piano Series got its new season off to a great start Monday evening at the Sottile Theater with the appearance of German pianist Hartmut Sauer. Before proceeding, I should point out that all five of this season’s recitals feature artists who are either current or former students of the College’s Artist-in-Residence and series founder Enrique Graf.

Sauer — who graduated from C of C’s Artist Certificate program just last year — began his program with Franz Schubert’s well-known Moments Musicaux. Written during the final two years of the composer’s tragically short life, these six pieces are full of the composer’s hallmark melodic inventiveness and harmonic beauty. Sauer proved to have a special affinity for Schubert, delivering the entire cycle with sweet, but subdued emotion and pearly tone. I particularly enjoyed the subtle meandering of the fourth piece

The next two numbers were from contemporary American composer Lee Hoiby, who’s been called the “other Samuel Barber.” The first was the rarely heard Toccata, an early work from Hoiby’s student years, before he had found his mature voice. Sauer delivered the mostly tense and hard-driving music with terrific energy and technical assurance. No matter how thick and fast the notes flew, he maintained a smooth, legato flow that at first seemed at odds with the music’s kinetic mood — but soon made sense.

Schubertian spirit then returned with Hoiby’s Schubert Variations, Op. 35 — employing as its theme one of Schubert’s many examples of the Ländler, a kind of Austrian folk-waltz. This one was especially sad and brooding, imparting a generally melancholic character to the variations that followed. Sauer’s sleek and mellow style matched the music well, even in the faster and more virtuosic passages.

The grand finale was Frederic Chopin’s blockbuster Sonata No. 3, in B-flat — his final work in the sonata form. Again, Sauer consistently impressed, with his ability to shift seamlessly between stormy or passionate episodes and quieter, more lyrical moments. But even when going full tilt — as in the playful scherzo — he played with incredible smoothness and quicksilver delicacy.

Sauer is a very different sort of artist, compared to many I’ve heard in this terrific series. There’s no splashy, contrived passion or needless display to his playing. His very personal, introspective style brought certain qualities and musical insights that I’ve never heard before to the Schubert and Chopin selections (the music I knew well). Under his hands, even the music’s most bravura moments were tempered with a sort of Germanic reserve.

But don’t mistake that comment for a complaint. One of the joys of great music is that it can withstand a wide variety of interpretive and technical approaches. And I’m very glad to have heard the rather unique approaches that Mr. Sauer had to offer.

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