• Orli Shaham Launches Mozart Sonata Cycle


    Mozart: Piano Sonatas, Volume 1
    Orli Shaham, piano
    Canary Classics 19
    Total Time: 77:05
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****


    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.


  • The Dresden Staatskapelle Light Music under Bohm


    Edition Staatskapelle Dresden, vol. 43: Karl Bohm
    Overtures & Entertaining Concert Pieces
    Dresden Staatskapelle/Karl Bohm
    Profil 18035
    Disc One: Total Time: 76:12
    Disc Two: Total Time: 75:43
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****


    The great Austrian conductor Karl Bohm (1894-1981) rose to prominence as an important interpreter of Mozart, Wagner, and Richard Strauss, as well as a supporter of modern German music.  His style, steeped in the German romantic tradition, would be captured in a long legacy on record.  His recording of Wagner’s Ring cycle from live performances in 1967 is a cornerstone of his recorded legacy and is among the finest available.  With the Berlin Philharmonic he recorded all the Mozart symphonies.  In 1971, he would commit to disc a Beethoven cycle with the Vienna Philharmonic that is still highly regarded today.  Bohm was among the conductors pegged early on as a possible “star” to sell early recordings of classical music.  Thus, his early discography features a great variety of music from early shellac LPS for Electrola which are the focus here.

    In this new set exploring the great history of the Dresden Staatskapelle orchestra we get a chance to hear the ensemble from its very earliest recordings.  The ensemble has a long history which goes back to 1548!  It was one of Richard Strauss’s favorite orchestras and was the orchestra where Richard Wagner served as Kapellmeister.  Also notable were its first recordings ever of Bruckner (the 4th and 5th symphonies).  Christian Thielemann is its current director.

    This new set in the Dresden’s early recordings were essentially “live” performances requiring a sort of attention to detail and focus that left no room for mistakes, retakes, or editing later.  The result is that there is an extra sense of energy and excitement underlying the performances.  Many longer pieces had to be split across two sides to accommodate the play time that was available on these 30 cm discs.  That makes longer works that real challenge for early recordings, but in this case, many works fit on a single side which adds to an even more fascinating listen to this collection of overtures and lighter pieces.  Sometimes it is hard to believe how engineers managed to find the right balance for these single microphone performances cut directly to cylinders.  The pieces featured here were recorded between 1935-40.  Disc one focuses mostly on music from Germany and Austria while the second disc opens up to music from throughout Europe.

    The repertoire here features a number of classics that continue to be perennial favorites as well as some interesting, but somewhat forgotten, little gems.  To get a sense of how much fun runs through these performances one can begin with the exciting performance of the Die Fledermaus “Overture” by Johann Strauss, Jr. which opens disc one.  Bohm’s approach really has this music sparkling along with a sense of energy and shape that tends to get overlooked.  The rich orchestral quality of the Dresden orchestra also comes through.  The dramatic “Interlude Music” from the composer’s operetta A Thousand and One Nights is a wonderful contrast. The interior of the program features the more popular Mozart overtures to The Abduction from the Seraglio (minus its concert ending) and The Marriage of Figaro.  More serious music of early German Romanticism then follows.  First is a riveting performance of the third “Leonore Overture” from Beethoven’s Fidelio (the trumpet fanfare solo is quite fascinating with its seeming recess in the sound picture) and the Egmont Overture, Op. 84.  The former’s sound suffers slightly from the second disc source which improves as it continues.  Weber is represented with overtures from Der Freischutz and Oberon, respectively.  Smetana’s Bartered Bride “Overture” closes off the CD.  But not before we are treated to the two earliest recordings in the set.  They represent the very first pieces Bohm recorded with the Dresden orchestra.  Albert Lortzing (1801-1851) was a composer and singer who expanded upon the German singspiel by combining elements of French comic opera.  His music was in vogue in Berlin in the 19th Century with the opera Undine (1845) one of his more popular works.  Its “Ballet Music” and a “Clog Dance” from the 1837 Zar und Zimmermann provide a nice transition historically from the Weber and into the nationalist style of Smetana.  The performances are all quite compelling on this release.  Strings sound quite good.  As is more the result of the mike placement than anything, wind passages in big moments can get lost, but they do manage to cut through when needed and it is obvious these players were brilliant technically in order to match the tempi in some of the faster segments.  Here we have the inherited tradition of how this music sounded as handed down to the present generation.

    Disc two features an additional collection of overtures and preludes but also gives us Mozar’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, K. 525 from 1938.  (Originally issued on a 2-disc set with one movement to a side!  There is some occasional surface noise here from time to time).  Here too the musical choices are a blend of familiar classics and interesting rarer pieces.  Humperdinck’s magical overture from Hansel und Gretel receives a gorgeous performance.  This and Reznicek’s Donna Diana overture bookend three Italian opera excerpts by Leoncavallo (I Pagliacci’s “Intermezzo”). Mascagni (the “Intermezzo sinfonico”—in a most beautifully delicate reading— and the “Easter Hymn” from Cavelleria Rusticana sung in Germanwhich includes the State Opera chorus and an organ as well) and the “Prelude” from Verdi’s Aida.  Fun short pieces follow including Berlioz’s “Rakoczy March”, an arrangement of Schubert’s “Marche Millitaire, D. 733”, and Strauss’s Emperor Waltz.  An 8-minute excerpt from Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien, Op. 45 has its own tantalizing moments of what a complete performance of the work might have sounded like.  The sole contemporary work is Theodor Berger’s (1905-1992) Rondino giocoso, Op. 4 (1933).  Berger’s music is all but forgotten today, but no less than Wilhelm Furtwangler was a proponent and advocate for it.  The recording here was made by Columbia.Two Hungarian Dances (nos 5 and 6) by Brahms bring this collection to a close.

    Surface noise has been optimized here with an often crystal clear quality.  Admittedly, it really feels as though one were hearing these on an LP player at times rather than a CD.  (Another side realization is the overall performance attacks and style of playing that often can be heard in the studio recordings in Hollywood in this same period.)  Some sources are in excellent condition while others at times show some wear.

    One of the historical side notes related to recording light classical repertoire that would sell well has its roots in the growing anti-semitism of the time.  In the case of the Electrola company, many of their releases featured the Berlin Staatskapelle which was conducted by Leo Blech who was Jewish.  He was one of the few artists allowed to leave Riga where he had been in exile, under orders by no less than Hermann Goring.  He would end up in Stockholm where he would conduct the opera there.  It is an important side note as this political issue was tied to the Electrola’s commercial need to essentially replace all of the recordings he made with new ones.   An additional side note is also necessary related to Bohm’s somewhat controversial personal life.  Bohm was a supporter of Hitler and the Nazi party, though some are yet unsure whether this was an extent of his own convictions or done to protect his family and progress his career.  This was especially present during his years in Dresden (1934-43), and even opened doors to his being the conductor of the Dresden Opera when Fritz Busch was dismissed.  After World War II, he was required to undergo two years of “denazification” before being allowed to return to conducting and public performing.  And so, we have here the beginnings of the recorded legacy by a decidedly somewhat controversial conductor of the 20th Century, but one whose musical ability is not denied.

    All of this historical reality is not intended to cast a shadow across what exists though in this release.  Profil has brought listeners an opportunity for an historical glance at the early days of a great conductor and one of the stellar orchestras of the early 20th Century.  The accompanying booklet has good information on the orchestra and recordings, less on the music itself though.  It is packages in a container that could hold 4 discs.  The musical legacy here is compelling with exciting performances of light classical works that in and of themselves reveal the taste and commercial viability of art music at the time.  Because many of these works remain popular, it gives even the most casual of classical music listeners an opportunity to explore historical recordings like these and potentially open up a door to many of the other releases in this extensive series.