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Hyperion Records

CDA67729 - Clementi: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 3
Alexander the Great before the tomb of Achilles by Giovanni Paolo Panini (1691-1765)
Musée Lambinet, Versailles / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: October 2008
St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Annabel Connellan
Engineered by Ben Connellan
Release date: April 2009
Total duration: 121 minutes 7 seconds


'The third volume of Howard Shelley's invaluable survey of Clementi piano sonatas confirms every expectation. Once more you are left to marvel at his unfailing brilliance and musicianship, qualities that can lift and enliven even the most predictable and mechanical gestures … every finger-twisting challenge is met with effortless ease, energy and grace, and Hyperion's sound is, as usual, of demonstration quality' (Gramophone)

'Shelley's third volume makes abundantly clear that Clementi at best was an outstanding composer … he tempers the virtuoso finger-dexterity of the 'mechanicus' with sensitive expressiveness, including moments of wonderfully luminous half-pedalling, and meticulous balance to expose inner motifs. He's well served by lively and immediate recording' (BBC Music Magazine)

'There are several gems in this collection, especially the Sonata in F minor Op 13 … the other sonatas here are also works of real quality and certainly worthy of comparison with the galant keyboard sonatas of Mozart and Haydn … Clementi's sonatas have been neglected for too long: these are not mere virtuoso showcases but works with a real sense of structure and motivic development, with an astonishing inventiveness of keyboard figurations and ideas, and with a melodic fecundity that never ceases to amaze. Shelley's articulation is impeccable and the technical intricacies pose no challenges … with performances of this commitment, with two discs for the price of one, immaculate sound from Hyperion and booklet notes by Leon Plantinga, this comes with the strongest recommendation' (International Record Review)

'Shelley is a stunning advocate for the inventive, progressive and fully mature piano works by this underated composer … the best to date … Clementi is a keyboard master of the highest order. The Adagio of the Second Sonata is a brilliant example of Shelley's finely chiselled tone, and dare I say that nobody can equal him in the last Presto movements of the Opus 13 sonatas. This is what the record industry should be: a library of discoveries, where you stumble on unknown works played to perfection by a master pianist. What more could one wish for?' (Pianist)

Piano Sonatas, Vol. 3
Adagio  [4'14]
Allegro assai  [2'10]
Allegro  [4'06]
Larghetto  [3'46]
Presto  [4'21]
Allegro agitato  [6'02]
Presto  [4'20]
Allegro  [5'56]
Allegro molto  [4'15]
Vivace  [5'43]
Allegro molto  [5'14]
Rondeau: Vivace  [3'06]
Adagio  [4'11]
Allegro assai  [5'14]
Adagio  [3'25]
Allegro con brio  [4'52]
Andante  [3'27]

Howard Shelley’s series of Clementi’s piano sonatas is receiving great critical acclaim and is increasing popular interest in this under-recorded composer. The sonatas in the present volume date from the period just after Clementi’s adventures in Europe of 1780–83 that included an unfortunate and well-known confrontation with Mozart, and a protracted stay in Lyons. Clementi moved back to London and there had a considerable reputation as a performer, composer and teacher. His playing was praised, among other things, for its ‘novel freedoms in tempo and dynamics in the service of heightened expression’ and those qualities are noticeable in the works recorded here.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Muzio Clementi, born in Rome in 1752, was just a bit older than Mozart, the other pianist– composer with whom he was often compared. After the two of them engaged in their famous piano ‘contest’ for the amusement of the Emperor Joseph II in Vienna at the end of 1781, Mozart made some very damaging remarks about Clementi’s playing (‘an atrocious chopping effect’, ‘not a Kreutzer’s worth of taste or feeling’); such opinions, broadcast by Mozart biographers in the nineteenth century, had a distinctly deleterious effect upon the Italian’s posthumous reputation. In the twentieth century we saw a slow rehabilitation of Clementi’s standing. A landmark in this process was Vladimir Horowitz’s recording of a judicious selection of Clementi sonatas in 1955. And the present series of recordings encompassing the full repertory of his solo sonatas is surely a signal contribution.

The sonatas in the present volume date from the period just after Clementi’s adventures in Europe of 1780–83 that included the confrontation with Mozart and a rather protracted stay in Lyons. Upon his return to London late in 1783 Clementi plunged into a rigorous regime of performing and teaching. He took on the first of a long series of famous piano students, Johann Baptist Cramer, and at the opening of the concert season in January 1784 he appeared as the regular piano soloist for the newly reorganized Hanover Square concert series (his playing, according to one critic of the time, showed ‘inimitable dexterity and expression’).

Then, at the end of March, Clementi suddenly disappeared from the scene, returning to Europe this time in pursuit of a personal matter in Lyons. There he embarked upon an abortive elopement with a former student, one Marie Victoire Imbert-Colomés, eighteen-year-old daughter of a highly placed citizen of the city. The father set off in pursuit and quickly put a stop to this adventure. Clementi retired for a time to Bern to seek solace and solitude at the home of a friend (whose name we do not know). There he evidently found a piano, for his host provided the most specific description we have of his playing:

When you see his fast passages in octaves for one hand, you can believe they are not easy to play; but he always does far more even than is written—octave trills, no less—and every note sounds clearly distinct from the others. He plays with an inimitable rapture, and with a continual swelling and receding, with unwritten lentando and rubando that it would be impossible to express on paper.

This characterization of Clementi’s performance captures the two elements that most impressed his listeners: unequaled feats of technical prowess (which Mozart scorned) and novel freedoms in tempo and dynamics in the service of heightened expression. Something of each of these can be seen in the sonatas he wrote during or just after these events.

By May 1785 Clementi was evidently once more back in London, for in that month his Sonatas Op 13—‘printed for the author, and to be had of him at No. 20, Goodge Street, Tottenham Court Road’—were registered at Stationers’ Hall, the English copyright institution. Of this set of six sonatas the first three are of the ‘accompanied’ sort: a part is also provided for a violin or flute accompaniment, usually of a rudimentary nature in keeping with the amateur associations of this genre. The three solo sonatas of this set are an impressive illustration of what Clementi himself immodestly characterized as his ‘more melodious, more noble style of performance’. While some of the old virtuoso devices are still there, they have been largely subsumed into musical structures with a new coherence and potency of expression. In the fourth sonata of this set, in B flat major, Clementi borrows a favourite stratagem of Haydn in constructing a sonata-form first movement from essentially a single musical theme. After the modulation to the dominant key (F), where we might expect something new, the opening music returns, now with an added valedictory air imparted by a tonic pedal point. When, a bit later, a ‘closing theme’ of the exposition seems in order, the same music, but slightly altered, appears once more. Then at the point of recapitulation we hear it again, but in the ‘wrong’ key, the subdominant, sounding in a noticeably lower range. The effect is one of studied unity: this movement is about only one idea, viewed from subtly different perspectives.

The first movement of the fifth sonata, in F, is similarly constructed, with the re-use at all important junctures of the same descending theme—one that in both melody and harmony startlingly prefigures the marvellous arietta theme of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op 111. Its recapitulation quietly enters even further afield, on E flat, the flat seventh degree. The finales of these two pieces are quite different. The fourth sonata ends with a jolly rondo whose principal theme may strike some as too slight to bear all the repetition the form entails; in the following sonata Clementi writes a sonata-form finale featuring the thicker, saturated keyboard textures he began to favour at this time—the sort of sound that was to become standard for the pianists of Beethoven’s generation and later.

The crowning achievement of Op 13 is surely the sixth sonata in F minor—another case in which Clementi’s best writing during this period is done in a minor key. The mood of this work is unremittingly dark from beginning to end. The first movement has the spare, driving, mostly two-part texture that Clementi remembered from his early immersion in the works of Domenico Scarlatti and his Italian contemporaries. But the overall effect is all his own. A particularly striking harmonic effect is heard towards the end of the first big section of the movement, where the key is (predictably) A flat major, but Clementi insists on the mordant sound of the flat sixth degree (F flat). The remarkable slow movement begins with caustic dissonances not explainable by any rules of harmony of Clementi’s day, and both exposition and recapitulation end with a gritty-sounding figuration constructed from a dominant ninth chord sounding above a tonic pedal point. This Largo e sostenuto unfolds as a full sonata-form, the longest and most serious slow movement Clementi had yet composed.

The final Presto, while replete with Clementi’s stock Italianate running textures, may well call to mind the young Beethoven. Its opening theme, for one thing, sounds much like a minor version of the contredanse theme Beethoven used several times, notably in the finale of the ‘Eroica’ Symphony. And elsewhere the keyboard writing is eerily similar to that of the early Beethoven sonatas, particularly the Sonata Op 2 No 1, also in F minor, published a decade after Clementi’s composition. Not long after its publication in England, Clementi’s collection also appeared in Bonn, where Beethoven, aged fifteen, was assistant organist at the Electoral Court and an aspiring pianist; it is easy enough to believe that these sonatas fell into his hands.

If the Sonatas of Op 13, particularly that final one in F minor, may seem to reflect the musical uplift and emotional turmoil of Clementi’s travels and travails of 1783–5, the works that follow, including most of the remaining sonatas in this volume, fit rather well with his more ordered life back in London. Named ‘principal composer and performer’ at the Hanover Square concerts for the 1786–7 season, Clementi was immediately swept up into the city’s burgeoning concert life. But his principal role, surprisingly, had to do not with keyboard music, but with music for orchestra; of the eleven concerts of the Hanover Square series that season, seven included symphonies or ‘overtures’ by Clementi—with the composer, in accord with London custom, presiding at the keyboard. In the following season Clementi defected to the competition and performed a similar role in the La Mara-Solomon concerts. During this period he also performed piano concertos between the acts of oratorios presented at Covent Garden. Orchestral music was not considered economically viable by the London music publishers of the time, and only two of these symphonies of Clementi survive, namely the two published as his Op 18 in 1787. We have only a single concerto, surviving in a manuscript copy; in 1794 Clementi turned this piece into a sonata (Op 33 No 3). But his immersion in symphonic composition during the later 1780s suggests that the keyboard sonatas of this period do not, for the most part, reflect his activities as a professional pianist. They are, rather, written mainly for publication, and, especially in London, that meant they were intended in large part for the growing population of the city’s amateur pianists.

These pianists were mostly young women for whom playing an instrument was a considered a social asset (which it emphatically was not for young men), and the names of some of them, likely Clementi’s students—a Miss Carolina Blake, a Miss Meysey, a Miss Gavin—appear as dedicatees on title-pages of sonatas he published at the time. Accordingly, the feats of technical prowess—the passages in thirds, sixths, and octaves—with which Clementi amazed his audiences have no part in these sonatas; nor are there harmonic audacities such as those of the slow movement of Op 13 No 6. A number of these sonatas revert to the Italianate two-movement plan. The fast movements generally flow easily in a two- or three-part texture, their charm (often considerable) seldom depending upon any element of surprise.

Clementi, like all composers for the emerging amateur music market, needed to balance his own artistic ambitions against the tastes and abilities of his intended audience. In the sonatas of his middle London period he often managed this very well. The unpretentious first movement of the Sonata WO3 (‘WO’ means without opus number) has an engaging, if disquieting, rhythm that responds throughout to the accented second beat of the main theme. The Sonata Op 20, after a pleasant first movement in the inoffensive galant style, presents a compact, harmonically potent second movement, and a finale whose rhythmic uniformity, a sort of moto perpetuo of running eighth notes (quavers) casts its surprising harmonic turns into bold relief.

The second sonata of Op 23, in F major, is one of Clementi’s finest in a major key up to this point. Its Adagio, a close relative of the Cantabile slow movement of Op 7 No 3, creates a potently expressive effect as its melody floats weightlessly downward above an immovable tonic pedal point. This sonata, like the first in the set, has a spirited rondo finale. True to their genre, both these movements have rhythmically square, ‘common’-sounding ritornelli (each heard three times); elements of these refrains are skilfully elaborated in the remainder of the movements in a way that is more usual in ‘sonata-form’ first movements than in rondos. The first movement of the third sonata of this set has a good bit of virtuoso non-thematic passagework—at points also for the left hand—that hardly seems designed for amateur players. Here Clementi may well have transformed one of those concerto movements he played at Covent Garden into a more saleable sonata.

The opening of the second sonata of Op 24 will jog many a listener’s musical memory: it very closely resembles the beginning of Mozart’s Overture to The Magic Flute. Published in 1788, the sonata clearly predates the opera (premiered in 1791), and in a revised version from about 1804 (by which time The Magic Flute was very famous) Clementi makes this point in an explanatory note: this sonata, he says, ‘a été jouée devant S.M.I. L’Empereur Joseph II en 1781, Mozart étant présent’. The first sonata of Op 24 also shows traces of Clementi the professional pianist; its first movement includes brilliant passages, often in both hands, and dramatic internal cadential gestures that suggest, once more, a former life as a concerto. This sonata concludes with an inventive set of variations on a theme that Mozart had used for the same purpose: an arietta, Lison dormait, by the Parisian composer Nicolas Dezède.

Leon Plantinga © 2009

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