Orli Shaham and Mozart
Orli Shaham Completes Her Odyssey Through Mozart’s Complete Piano Sonatas

Mozart wrote 18 piano sonatas and American pianist Orli Shaham has recorded all of them for the Canary Classics label, the final two volumes of the series being released in February this year. These sonatas have an enduring appeal, for players, both professional and amateur, and audiences alike.

Orli Shaham

Orli Shaham © Karjaka Studios

For Orli Shaham the fascination with Mozart’s piano music began at an early age: this recording is the result of an exhilarating 40-year journey through the sonatas, getting to know them intimately, studying them deeply to appreciate their individual characters, and to understand the composer’s musical methods and motivations. “Was he trying out that piano? Was he writing for someone’s daughters? I want that something from every single one of them.” (Orli Shaham)

The recording was made in August 2019 and August 2020, at Mechanics Hall in Worcester, Massachusetts. The timing was deliberate to ensure consistent humidity in the hall: the result is a wonderful clarity and evenness of sound.

The piano sonatas reveal Mozart’s compositional genius in microcosm – from big orchestral gestures and brass fanfares to chamber music textures and eloquent operatic arias. Shaham pays great attention to the changing textures of Mozart’s writing but also his chiaroscuro – those remarkable emotional shifts from light to dark and back to light which occur in phrases or indeed a single bar. This is most evident in the slow movements where Shaham finds particular intimacy, poignancy, and depth of expression – for example, as here in the Adagio from the sonata no. 2 in F Major, K.280:

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Sonata No. 2 in F Major, K. 280 – II. Adagio (Orli Shaham, piano)

Mozart's sonata (Orli Shaham, piano) album cover

© Canary Classics

There’s a delightful clarity too, in Shaham’s approach, with impeccable attention to details of dynamics, phrasing and articulation combined with judicious use of pacing and rubato to create drama (take the opening movement of the sonata K.310, for example, where she takes time to appreciate the increasing operatic tension). There are moments of wondrous spaciousness, especially in the slow movements, where the contrasting hues of Mozart’s compositional palette are really brought to the fore.

We caught up with Orli Shaham to find out more about the pleasures and challenges of recording the complete Mozart piano sonatas.

Congratulations on completing your recording of Mozart’s piano sonatas. What have been the particular challenges and pleasures of recording this cycle?

From a pianistic point of view, the greatest pleasure has been feeling Mozart’s hand at the keyboard and the way that he must have used his musculature, the technique. When you play all of these sonatas, you feel like you know how it felt to be inside his hands and some of the brilliant ideas that he came up with of getting your fingers around the keyboard in virtuosic and delightful ways.

The complete sonatas run from his earliest maturity to quite late in his output. Therefore, the musical trajectory of how he put together notes, how he was thinking from a formal point of view, how he was thinking of the storytelling of a sonata and how the audience would be engaged throughout that whole time, that’s been a tremendous pleasure to learn from him.

The challenges are many. Mozart had a tremendous technique, so the sonatas are challenging to play because he was such a master of the keyboard and was so free to express himself in so many different ways. Internalizing what that is and getting to the place where I felt comfortable to convey as many of his intentions as possible was certainly a wonderful challenge from the beginning.

There’s no question that part of the challenge of playing his sonatas is the fact that I’m playing them on a beautiful modern Steinway, which of course, he didn’t have access to. While I love that, and it is a pleasure, the question of how do I make this as close to what I think he would have done if he were around in 2020 to record it is definitely challenging and something that I put a lot of thought into.

Pianist Orli Shaham Plays Mozart Sonata No. 15, K.533

In terms of the recording sessions of the sonatas, we had a great challenge. Our first session was in August 2019. The world looked quite different when we recorded the second session in August 2020, during the first months of the Covid pandemic, and we came up against quite a lot of challenges. This was before any of the technologies were available for remote recording and remote engineering. We had to use 27 different apps and programs to make that second recording session possible.
A particularly tough moment was when I had just finished playing the first movement of the C Minor Sonata, which is so emotional and such a moment of vulnerability for the performer. I played my heart out, and then there was radio silence from my wonderful producer Erica Brenner, hundreds of miles away in Cleveland, because the internet service for the entire neighborhood had failed. Luckily, the audio was captured, and a few hours later, using a lot of workarounds, we were able to continue recording.

Orli Shaham: Mozart K576 III, from Canary Classics Vol 2&3 Complete Mozart Sonatas

Schnabel said of the sonatas “too easy for children, and too difficult for artists”. What do you think he meant by this statement?

It’s a really interesting commentary. I’m not sure I entirely agree with “too easy,” but there are places in those sonatas where the writing is something that makes sense for a student to play because it’s so idiomatic for the keyboard. It will teach you how to use your hand correctly at the most basic level. But at the same time, he’s doing it with such grace and artistry, and intelligence that there are layers and layers of meaning to unpack, even with the simplest phrase.

Why, in your opinion, do Mozart’s piano sonatas have an enduring popular appeal, with both artists and audiences?

Karjaka Studios

Karjaka Studios

They have an enduring popular appeal because Mozart had an enduring popular appeal in mind. I love that that’s so, so true. You see it in his letters. He writes to his father, “Don’t worry. I’m putting something in for the really super educated. I’m putting something in for the ones who really don’t know anything about music yet. I’m putting something in for the ones who want to play themselves but aren’t that good.” He thought about everybody and he tried from very early on to consciously put all of that into every sonata, into every work of music that he wrote, actually. I love that he was very mindful of his audience. Of course, that’s part of where he was in time. He was one of the first composers to try to get by without the benefit of somebody’s patronage, meaning he had to appeal to the audience.

Do you have a favourite sonata out of the entire cycle?

Yes. The one I’m playing at the moment.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Sonata No. 11 in A Major, K. 331 – I. Theme and Variations: Andante grazioso (Orli Shaham, piano)

(Sonata in A K331, 1st Movt)

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