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Shaham's Mozart Sonata Cycle Passes Midpoint

Mozart: Piano Sonatas, volume 4 Orli Shaham, piano Canary Classics 23 Total Time: 70:05 Recording: ****/**** Performance: ****/****

Orli Shaham has quite firmly established herself as a Mozartean worth paying attention to in this ongoing survey of the piano sonatas. She finds the right amount of poise and elegance inherent in these pieces along with some of the wit and winking that Mozart employs in his own precociousness. Launched in 2020 on Canary Records, the project has now passed its midway point of a projected six discs. Here she traverses three sonatas that Mozart composed as part of a series of six “calling cards” for a trip to Munich in 1774-75, expectedly playing them in the homes those who could perhaps supply him with steadier income.

One always must approach Mozart with the expectation that things are going to be attempting to be better than the traditional norms of form and style of the period. Classical rhetoric informs the structures, but Mozart loves to show off his talents both as a keyboardist and composer. These elements are on great display in different ways in the three sonatas on this album. Each of the sonatas here are three-movement works and there are interesting experiments in each.

The album opens with K. 280. This “second” sonata in F is the most traditional in terms of its movement structure, but has a semi-improvisational quality with the way the music tends to pause here and there. A little bit of everything appears in this work, with Alberti bass lines being one more common component. The first movement features a traditional sonata form but also introduces slight chromatic writing. The Italianate slow movement is a sublime moment of beauty and the only such movement in his sonatas set in a minor key lending it a tragic quality. That is of course shattered with a straightforward, and quite short, “Presto” of virtuosic display that seems to say, “Just kidding, let’s have fun!”

At the center here is the first sonata, K. 279 in C. Again, a sonata allegro movement gets things going and here too Mozart plays with interesting harmonic shifts and chromaticism. A little motive in the left hand becomes transformed into a sort of primary theme here which in a way is a harbinger of Beethoven. One might say it is a motive in search of a theme. The interesting modulation ideas are a hallmark of the central, quite expressive, “Andante”. The final “Allegro” has a rather abrupt Coda as well. The sonata features a variety of interesting left-hand writing that has a sort of showing off of the dexterity between the hands here in the compositional and performance process.

The sixth sonata in D, K. 284, was written for the bassoonist and amateur keyboard player Baron von Durnitz. This is one of Mozart’s lengthier sonatas running around 30 minutes, due in large part to the final movement which is a Theme and Variations. Twelve (!) variations clearly showing of on one side, but also staying fairly constant in D Major throughout with other ornaments and adjustments to other elements of the rhythms and melodic shape, all mostly within the quality of a gavotte. It is suspected that Mozart likely embellished a lot of the music here which can be seen in a first edition of the work. The work opens with a sort of olio of ideas including tremolos, standard Baroque-like chord distribution, and other little effects that make it feel slightly experimental. The central movement is a rondeau with a folkish influence, a polonaise. Interesting dynamic shading is part of the movement’s uniqueness as well.

Helping listeners accustomed to Mozart’s music understand how different this was from other work at the time is always difficult. One teaches often the bare basics of how music was constructed but rarely do we spend time looking or listening to those works that just did the basics of utilitarian music. Communicating that Mozart lifted these, sometimes banal, structures and forms to a new level can be heard, but often the wit is lost. In Shaham’s performances, we get a sense of the way each of these pieces creates a chance for shock, or delightful surprises for the audiences of the time. The shaping of line and clean articulation throughout, which has been a true hallmark of each of her previous recordings in the series, shines here as well. All of it is captured in excellent sound that provides our own intimate salon setting to try and rehear these works with new ears. Another release not to be missed in this important new survey of Mozart sonatas.


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