Dec 1, 2019

Mozart: Piano Concertos Nos. 17 & 24 (CD review)

Orli Shaham, piano; David Robertson, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. Canary Classics CC18.

No, you're not experiencing a bout of deja vu. The coupling of Mozart's cheerful Piano Concerto 17 with his more somber Piano Concerto 24 is fairly common on records. So common, in fact, that I reviewed two different recordings of the same pair of concertos within days of one another. This one features pianist Orli Shaham, Maestro David Robertson, and the St. Louis Symphony.

According to Wikipedia, Orli Shaham (b. 1975) is an American pianist, born in Jerusalem, Israel and the sister of violinist Gil Shaham. She graduated from the Horace Mann School in Riverdale, New York, attended Columbia University, and also studied at the Juilliard School.

Orli Shaham has performed with major orchestras throughout the world and won numerous awards, including the Gilmore Young Artist Award in 1995 and the Avery Fisher Career Grant in 1997.  She has appeared with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Detroit and Atlanta Symphonies, Orchestre National de Lyon, National Symphony Orchestra of Taiwan, Cleveland Orchestra, Houston Symphony, St. Louis Symphony, Florida Orchestra, Rochester Philharmonic, Orchestra of La Scala (Milan), Orchestra della Toscana (Florence), and the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, among others.

In November 2008, she became artistic advisor to the Pacific Symphony and curator of their "Cafe Ludwig" chamber music series. She also has a radio feature carried by the Classical Public Radio Network called "Dial-a-Musician," in which she calls expert colleagues to answer listener questions. In 2003, Shaham married David Robertson, then Music Director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, and they accompany her on the present recording.

The program starts with the Piano Concerto No. 17 in G major, K.453, written along with five others in 1781. The concerto is lyrical and playful, and Shaham's performance is as sunny as the piece requires, yet it remains classically refined. Mozart intended a degree of melancholy in the second-movement Andante, and Shaham does a good job bringing it out without undue gushiness. Then, there's the finale, which so pleased Mozart that he taught his pet starling to sing it. Shaham enjoys it and helps us to enjoy it as well in a sprightly reading. Here, Ms. Shaham impresses us most of all with her fluid virtuosity. It's a big, flowing a performance. And when I say big, I mean the orchestra appears a little too big here for Mozart's music.

Orli Shaham
The Piano Concerto No. 24 in c minor, K491 is, as I said earlier, a contrast to No. 17, more serious, darker in tone, and more dramatic, almost operatic. Mozart finished it in 1786, writing it for a larger array of instruments than for No. 17, more so, in fact, than for any of his other concertos, and its opening movement is the longest he had written to that point. Here, the size of the St. Louis Symphony seems more appropriate than it did No. 17. Some music critics admire the concerto so much, they consider it the best piano concerto Mozart ever wrote. Who knows? Music is so much a matter of taste and opinion, it's hard to say.

You can tell from its lengthy introduction that No. 24 has a bigger feel to it than his previous concertos and a more somber mood. When the piano finally enters, it's quietly subdued, the pianist gradually increasing its emotional scope and building its dramatic intensity. Still, Shaham's playing is always graceful and elegant, as well as dazzling. Mozart intended the slow, middle movement to be sweet and simple, so Shaham tries to keep it that way, perhaps making it a tad too matter of fact at times. The concerto culminates in a set of variations comprising an essentially tragic finale, which Shaham plays with a fine precision, although, again, perhaps missing something of the drama.

As with so many pianists before her, Shaham's performances of both concertos are thoughtful and polished, the pianist adding a degree of warmth to her interpretations that sets them apart. Whether they sound a touch too "old-fashioned" in this day of historically informed performances remains a matter of personal taste.

Producer Erica Brenner and engineer Paul Hennerich recorded the concertos at Powell Hall, St. Louis, Missouri, in November 2017 and January 2018. Ultrasmooth sound and a good dynamic range help make this an enjoyable experience. Imaging is a bit on the large, sometimes overcrowded side, with bunches of instruments seeming to be on top of one another, especially in the left violin section. The piano is nicely placed, however, at center front, neither too far in front of nor buried by the orchestra. It makes for comfortable listening.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing for the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Karl Nehring, Editor and Contributor

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to both its equipment and recordings review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me — point out recordings that they think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises Marantz CD 6007 and Onkyo CD 7030 CD players, NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I occasionally do some listening through pair of Sennheiser 560S headphones. I miss the excellent ELS Studio sound system in our 2016 Acura RDX (now my wife's daily driver) on which I had ripped more than a hundred favorite CDs to the hard drive, so now when driving my 2022 Accord EX-L Hybrid I stream music from my phone through its adequate but not outstanding factory system. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has tolerably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom II Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can’t imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Most recently I’ve moved to my “ultimate system” consisting of a BlueSound Node streamer, an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a CD transport, Legacy Wavelet II DAC/preamp/crossover, dual Legacy PowerBloc2 amps, and Legacy Signature SE speakers (biamped), all connected with decently made, no-frills cables. With the arrival of CD and higher resolution streaming, that is now the source for most of my listening.

Ryan Ross, Contributor

I started listening to and studying classical music in earnest nearly three decades ago. This interest grew naturally out of my training as a pianist. I am now a musicologist by profession, specializing in British and other symphonic music of the 19th and 20th centuries. My scholarly work has been published in major music journals, as well as in other outlets. Current research focuses include twentieth-century symphonic historiography, and the music of Jean Sibelius, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Malcolm Arnold.

I am honored to contribute writings to Classical Candor. In an age where the classical recording industry is being subjected to such profound pressures and changes, it is more important than ever for those of us steeped in this cultural tradition to continue to foster its love and exposure. I hope that my readers can find value, no matter how modest, in what I offer here.

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa