Mozart: Piano Sonatas, Volume 1
Orli Shaham, piano
Canary Classics 19
Total Time: 77:05
In 2019, pianist Orli Shaham began setting down her interpretation of Mozart Sonatas in a complete set that is being slowly released by Canary Classics. The recordings were made in the historic Mechanics Hall in Worcester, MA. Notably, she also released earlier a recording of two Mozart concertos with the St. Louis Symphony. Shaham is noted for her impeccable grace and ability to address subtle aspects of the music. Those are perfect qualities for the likes of Mozart and this first album reveals this in the three Bb Major (Nos. 3, 13, and 17) sonatas chosen to launch the project. The programming reveals a chance to perhaps better understand the precociousness of Mozart and the rich, varied approaches within a single harmonic area that he explored in these works.
The third sonata in Bb Major (K.281) is a work of the teenage Mozart. Written in 1775, the music stays close to the sort of sonatas of Haydn and J.C. Bach. The first movement seems a bit daring at first with its immediate shift away from the tonic key and interesting motivic focus. It certainly has that bit of wit and trickery that follows into the development section. And yet, the recapitulation is very basic and almost underwhelming. Almost as if the young composer wants to reassure the listener that he is going to stay close to the norm. The central movement is a lovely sonata-form with some beautiful lyrical writing (perhaps thinking of the young Aloysia Weber he had his eye on). The final movement is a witty rondo flirting with sonata form. One unifying element in the piece is a trill figure which appears throughout the work. There are plenty of moments to smile at the humorous ways that Mozart plays with expectations and musically sticks his tongue out (perhaps that is the trill’s purpose after all?). This is handled quite beautifully by Shaham who brings out these nuances as the work plays out.
At almost 28-minutes in length, the thirteenth sonata (K. 333) is one of the more intense and longer Mozart works in this genre. Unlike the earlier work which may have been more directed as a “teaching” work, this more virtuosic piece suggests it was written for the composer to perform in public himself. Though dated to 1783, it is possible the piece was written earlier and used for a concert in Linz which also resulted in a symphony which bears its additional designation (K. 425). There is more a concerto feel to the piece and the movements, especially the length, certainly suggest a grander intent. The opening has moments that feel almost as if we are hearing a piano reduction of the orchestra with soloists passagework. These move between elegance and bravura. The central movement is another of those really gorgeous melodic works that could be a reduction of some operatic love duet. The finale is a rondo marked “Allegretto grazioso” which again hints at a more elegant sensibility. There is a cadenza-like section which again points to the grander feel of the piece. This is a really superb performance of the piece and there is great attention to dynamic shifts as well as the way the music shifts between these extremes of an almost orchestral to a more soloistic quality.
The final sonata on the album is K. 570. This is the seventeenth of these works with a more standard 3-movement and comes near the end of his life. Written in 1789, it came at a time when Mozart’s financial difficulties were perhaps at the beginning of their lowest point and after an abysmal tour that yielded few prospects. There has always been speculation that this may have been intended as a violin sonata and a rather limpid violin part appeared with its publication in 1796. Though Mozart himself entered the work as for solo piano. The opening “Allegro” seems a bit restrained but has some rather interesting contrapuntal work and plays with structure as well. The central slow movement is a rondo with a charming affect within a rather intriguing formal choice. The finale returns to humor and wit with delightful surprises that some find parallel the world of opera buffa.
Shaham’s performances here are quite beguiling. She manages to lean into the humor of these works where that is needed but also manages to connect with that sort of inner sadness that provides a poignant undercurrent in Mozart’s music. That is especially apparent in the slow movements with their sense of yearning and grace. The music’s formal aspects are also well delineated in her performance and there is a fine sense of understanding of where these works are in Mozart’s development. By placing these three Bb works together, Shaham also manages to help listeners see this growing development in Mozart’s music that touches the heart without becoming too romantic, though one can see that shift on the horizon as Mozart departs from the banal simplicity of others around him. From what is heard on this release, Mozarteans will certainly want to keep their eye out for the remainder of this traversal of Mozart’s work if this exquisite release is any indication of what is yet to come.