Out Of A Covid Project, Mozart Piano Sonatas Eloquent And Complete


Hoping that Mozart’s music could help to restore our souls during the Covid epidemic, pianist Orli Shaham began to record and stream the 18 sonatas in installments. Now comes a six-volume set on the Canary Classics label, commemorating the project. (Above, cover art for volumes 5-6, Karjaka Studios)

Mozart: Complete Piano Sonatas. Orli Shaham, piano; Canary Classics, Vol. 1  (CC 19); Vols. 2 and 3  (CC21); Vol. 4  (CC 23); Vols. 5 and 6 (CC24).

DIGITAL REVIEW – During the Covid-19 pandemic, classical artists hungry to remain relevant and help in some meaningful way offered all kinds of streaming opportunities. Few such offerings, though, seemed more apt than pianist Orli Shaham’s MidWeek Mozart, which she began in April 2020 and continued for about a year, each installment consisting of a movement from one of the composer’s sonatas that she had begun recording a year earlier and completed in September. Mozart’s life-affirming music was just the right tonic during that troubled time.

In the time since the pandemic, Shaham has been systematically releasing portions of that recording project on the Canary Classics label; the final two volumes of the six-volume set became available in February on streaming services and physical CDs. A complete box set with liner notes by Donald Rosenberg, former classical music critic of the Cleveland Plain Dealer and a current editor at Classical Voice North America, is scheduled for release this summer. (An exact date has not yet been announced.)

Earlier in her Mozart project, two piano concertos with Robertson and the St. Louis Symphony.

Mozart wrote music for a multitude of instruments and in an array of forms, but alongside opera – where he quenched his voracious thirst for the theater and created some of his greatest works – he devoted the most time to writing for the keyboard. The composer was, of course, one of classical music’s most celebrated piano prodigies, and he continued his virtuosity into adulthood, playing first the harpsichord and later the fortepiano.

Mozart’s most famous pieces for the keyboard are unquestionably his piano concertos. He wrote 21 of them for solo piano and orchestra that span much of his life, plus two such works for two and three pianos, respectively, as well as four numbered arrangements of sonatas by other composers. (In 2019, Shaham released a recording of Piano Concertos No. 17 and 24 with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra on Canary Classics.)

But of nearly equal importance and perhaps more personal are Mozart’s 18 piano sonatas, beginning when he was 18 years old. (He also wrote a handful of sonatas for keyboard four-hands as well as one for two pianos.) According to the liner notes, Shaham, 48, first heard her brother Shai practicing the Piano Concerto No. 20 when she was three years old, and a love and appreciation of Mozart’s music has remained with her ever since.

In addition to performing with many top orchestras and appearing as a recitalist in major venues worldwide, Shaham serves as a co-host of National Public Radio’s young-artist showcase, From the Top, and is a member of the piano and chamber-music faculty at the Juilliard School in New York City.

Shaham is well regarded in the field, and this newly released set of Mozart’s complete solo piano sonatas goes far in explaining why. She possesses the necessary technical brilliance and plays with eloquence, clarity, and honesty – all qualities ideally suited to Mozart’s music, which is much more difficult to pull off successfully than might be apparent at first.

Shaham’s recorded takes on all 18 of Mozart’s sonatas have plenty to offer, but here are five highlights from among them:

 • III. Andante, Piano Sonata No. 6 in D major, K. 284 (1775). This extraordinary movement, which runs a bit longer than 17 minutes on this recording, consists of a theme and 12 variations. Delivering some of her finest and most insightful playing in this set, Shaham deftly conveys the character and feel of each variation while simultaneously melding the movement into a cohesive, compelling whole.

 • II. Andante cantabile con espressione, Piano Sonata No. 8 in A minor, K. 310 (1778). One of the two sonatas in a minor key, this work was written around the time of Mozart’s mother’s death and may reflect some of the difficult emotions he was experiencing at the time. Shaham sensitively captures the gently introspective sense of this slow second movement.

 • III. Alla turca – Allegretto, Piano Sonata No. 11 in A major, K. 331 (1784). The final movement of this sonata, also known as the Rondo alla Turca or Turkish March, is often played on its own and is one of Mozart’s most famous keyboard works. It mimics the sound of Ottoman military bands, which were in vogue at the time. Shaham crisply voices the catchy melody with its repeating, push-off pattern and delivers the section’s all-important drive while not pressing, yet still gives the music freedom and room to breathe.

 • III. Allegro assai, Piano Sonata No. 12 in F major, K. 332 (1784). This virtuosic romp opens with a burst of sixteenth notes and just continues to fly along, with fast fingerwork, multiple key changes, and abundant contrasts along the way. With an agile, cleanly articulated touch, Shaham brings an almost understated and always very musical approach to this boisterous music, never succumbing to the temptation to rush or overpower even the most spirited sections.

 • III. Rondo – Allegretto, Piano Sonata No. 15 in F major, K. 533 (1788). To create this sonata, Mozart used a revised and enlarged version of an earlier, stand-alone work (Rondo No. 2, K. 494), with its very evident alternating sequence, as his third movement and then added two other sections. At times delicate, declarative, or dreamy, Shaham’s compelling playing here makes clear her interpretative depth and nuance.

By any measure, this ambitious, multi-year project ranks among Shaham’s biggest and most successful accomplishments. While there are many first-rate recordings of Mozart’s sonatas, her take has earned a worthy place of its own.