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Hyperion Records

CDA67814 - Clementi: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 5
Roman Capriccio by Giovanni Paolo Panini (1691-1765)
Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford / Bridgeman Art Library, London
CDA67814

Recording details: October 2009
St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Annabel Connellan
Engineered by Ben Connellan
Release date: May 2010
Total duration: 143 minutes 39 seconds

GRAMOPHONE EDITOR'S CHOICE

'Volume 5 of Howard Shelley's exemplary survey brings us sonatas from the late 1790s … several of the works in Vol 4 had a Haydnesque feel but here there seems to be a more personal style on show, busy with up-to-date, complex keyboard figuration yet also displaying natural shapeliness, as well as some moments of memorable individuality … clearly played, intelligently detailed and perfectly recorded' (Gramophone)

'Shelley's playing is exemplary, with a gloriously fluent technique and a most perceptive interpretational approach … the Six Sonatinas here prove particularly nostalgic, core repertoire from many a pianist's childhood and perfect miniature paradigms of classical sonata form … Shelley is creating a benchmark for Clementi's solo piano music which I doubt will be moved in the foreseeable future and this volume's two-discs-for-the-price-of-one is an irresistible offering' (BBC Music Magazine)

'You won't often hear [the Op 36 Sonatinas] played as skilfully as here … along with his best-known works, the 12 on this set include some of Clementi's best, the two sonatas of his Op 34, pieces that attracted the attention of pianists of the calibre of Horowitz and Gilels before the clear and disciplined Shelley. Prepare to be surprised by the strength of musical argument' (The Irish Times)

Piano Sonatas, Vol. 5
CD1
Finale: Allegro  [4'16]
Un poco adagio  [7'01]
Allegro  [1'25]
Andante  [2'26]
Vivace  [0'48]
Allegretto  [1'55]
Allegretto  [1'05]
Allegro  [1'17]
Spiritoso  [3'17]
Un poco adagio  [1'16]
Allegro  [1'11]
Con spirito  [3'17]
Presto  [3'26]
CD2
Allegro di molto  [7'03]
Adagio sostenuto  [3'40]
Finale: Vivace  [4'44]
Allegro  [5'29]
Allegro  [9'09]
Finale: Presto  [3'45]

Howard Shelley’s acclaimed series of the complete Piano Sonatas of Clementi reaches its penultimate volume. In the latter half of the 1790s, when all the sonatas and sonatinas heard in this recording (with the exception of the Sonata Op 46) were published, Clementi apparently devoted his energies mainly to teaching. His pupils included members of well-placed families in London who were able to meet his reported fee of one guinea per lesson. He also had among his students aspiring professionals, including J B Cramer, Theresa Jansen, Benoit-August Bertini, and John Field.

The sonatas heard here, owing to their technical difficulty, appear for the most part to be addressed to such students and other accomplished pianists—and perhaps for Clementi’s own performance in private circles. The sonatinas are clearly intended for less advanced pupils; today they are Clementi’s most well-known works as countless young pianists are still given them for instruction. Therefore this set should be of particular interest to many of those pupils and their teachers.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Muzio Clementi, born in Rome in 1752, was taken to the Dorset home of Sir Peter Beckford in England at the age of thirteen, and settled in London in 1774 to make his way there as a freelance musician. In the years that followed he played the piano on the London stage and made a number visits to the Continent as a pianist and piano composer—these roles being closely intertwined, as public pianists tended to play their own music. In the early 1780s he seemed to become, briefly, one of the very first of that new breed of musician, the travelling virtuoso, preceding Paganini in that role by some thirty years. On his first tour Clementi performed in Paris and Vienna (where Emperor Joseph II staged a celebrated contest between him and Mozart in 1781) and in various other German and Austrian centres.

From 1785 to 1802 Clementi worked steadily in London, achieving great eminence first as a composer, pianist and teacher, and later as a music publisher and instrument manufacturer. During the later 1780s he was a highly visible participant in London’s bustling musical scene, whose vibrancy and variety eclipsed that of all other cities. The opera productions at King’s Theatre, Covent Garden, and Drury Lane competed for the most famous singers of the day. And there was a great proliferation of concerts, public and private, where Clementi became something of a fixture playing his own sonatas; he presented his concertos—as was the custom—between acts of oratorio performances at Covent Garden. Beginning in 1786 he appeared on stage in a new role, as conductor (from the keyboard) of his own symphonies. (Only two of his symphonies from this period, published as Op 18 in 1787, have survived.)

After 1790 Clementi apparently stopped appearing on stage as a solo pianist. Only thirty-eight years old at the time, he appeared to be at the apogee of his career, with a full schedule of appearances and every sign of continued public approval of his playing. But in eighteenth-century England the practice of domestic keyboard-playing as a diversion mainly for young people, and especially for young females, seemed to carry over to the concert stage. New pianists appearing in London concerts during the 1780s included William Crotch, Miss Guest, Miss Parke, Miss Barthelemon, and Mlle Paradis, none of whom at their debuts would admit to being more than fourteen years of age. In this company Clementi may have felt a little out of place—especially as newspapers in both London and Paris started referring to him using the coy diminutive ‘Clementini’. But during the first half of the 1790s a more serious challenge to the Italian’s security as a public musician in London was the presence of Joseph Haydn for four concert seasons in 1791–2 and 1794–5. Clementi was only one of several composers resident in the city whose careers suffered in a losing competition with the world-famous visitor.

In the latter half of the 1790s, when all the sonatas and sonatinas heard in this recording (with the exception of the Sonata Op 46) were published, Clementi apparently devoted his energies mainly to teaching. His pupils included members of well-placed families in London who were able to meet his reported fee of one guinea per lesson. He also had among his students aspiring professionals, including J B Cramer, Theresa Jansen, Benoit-August Bertini, and John Field. The sonatas heard here, owing to their technical difficulty, appear for the most part to be addressed to such students and other accomplished pianists—and perhaps for Clementi’s own performance in private circles. The sonatinas are clearly intended for less advanced pupils.

According to later testimony of Clementi’s student Ludwig Berger, the C major Sonata Op 34 No 1 was originally a concerto (and Op 34 No 2 a symphony). The former, the Sonata in C major, has wide-ranging keyboard figurations, some for the left hand, that would be quite at home in a piano concerto; but the big cadential patterns marking off the exchanges of solo and orchestra are missing. If this was once a concerto, Clementi took pains to conceal these origins. The second movement of the sonata, in F major, is particularly memorable: its atmospheric first section anticipates the manner of Clementi’s student John Field—and ultimately Chopin—to which the high drama of the contrasting middle section in the parallel minor offers an effective foil.

The G minor Sonata Op 34 No 2 stands out as one of Clementi’s finest. Often at his best when working in minor keys, he unites in this work seemingly unrelated stylistic fashions into a seamless whole of great expressive power. The Largo e sostenuto opening, with its distinctive three-stroke theme, becomes an abrasively dissonant chromatic fugato whose subject is transformed into the first material of the following Allegro con fuoco. The return of the Largo at the entry of the recapitulation—anticipating Beethoven’s similar stratagem in his sonatas Op 13 (‘Pathétique’) and Op 31 No 2 (‘Tempest’)—confirms its status as something more integral than the ordinary slow introduction. Throughout this urgent, rushing movement informal contrapuntal writing first heard in that Largo mingles with idiomatic and thoroughly modern keyboard figurations. The second movement enters as a gentle barcarolle melody accompanied by an innocent dotted-note irritant that later becomes a distinctly un-gentle secondary theme. The sonata ends with a driving, tight-knit ‘sonata-allegro’ movement that affirms the overall serious—if not desperate—tone of this work. Informal polyphonic writing at the outset recalls the texture of the first movement, and with the arrival of the second theme we hear a specific reference back to the three-stroke figure that began the opening Largo. This remarkable work, published in 1795, easily bears comparison with Beethoven’s ‘debut’ Sonatas Op 2, published the same year.

The six Sonatinas, Op 36, published two years later, stand at the opposite end of the spectrum of Clementi’s piano-writing. He called them ‘progressive’, and the not-very-advanced pupil for whom they are intended will encounter some gentle escalation of technical difficulty while moving through the series—short semiquaver (sixteenth-note) runs for the left hand appear as early as the second Sonatina. But throughout, the form and textures remain transparent, and the requisite keyboard facility modest. The first movement of the final D minor Sonatina, for example, features a fluid, mobile melodic figuration in the right hand with even triadic figuration below. Like Mozart, in his ‘little keyboard sonata for beginners’ as he called it (K545 in C major), Clementi can construct an attractive and effortlessly graceful movement from the most everyday materials: from diatonic scales, turns, arpeggios, Alberti-bass and repeated-note accompaniments. These Sonatinas, practised year in and year out by countless beginner pianists around the world, are by all odds Clementi’s best-known music. And surely it is a tribute to their quality and usefulness that after more than two centuries they still perform admirably the function for which their composer intended them.

The Op 37 Sonatas are again much more ambitious and technically demanding, though none of the three rises to the heights of passionate expression of the G minor Sonata of Op 34. The first one, in C major, starts off with a theme of a sort that Clementi often writes: a melody in the treble is supported—or, in some ways, opposed—by an insistent tonic pedal point below, embodied in a broken octave or ‘murky bass’ accompaniment. This typically results in sharp dissonances and an overall impression of the ‘rustic’ or ‘pastoral’. The last bit of melodic material upon which the movement is built comes in similar garb, contributing to a pervasive air of conscious primitivism. The second sonata, too, begins with a theme accompanied by a tonic pedal point or drone, this one in simple repeated notes. But here the pedal point, G, has an inconspicuous F sharp upbeat attached, and Clementi makes that semitone shift a central building block of what turns out to be a strong movement. The second movements here are very dissimilar. That of the first sonata consists of a very simple frame with a great deal of added ornament; the second sonata has an attractive, spare, quasi-polyphonic saraband (‘In the Solemn Style’, says Clementi); the slow movement of the last sonata is mainly an exercise in severe two-part polyphony in even crochets (quarter notes).

The three finales in this set are all good-natured rondos, with the sort of home-spun rhythmically regular themes associated with this form. The reviewer for the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, a leading German musical journal, commented:

The one thing, in our opinion, that could be criticized in these sonatas is the indulgence in a mannerism that has recently become the fashion in England: the imitation of bagpipes—which, as we know, is the favourite and almost the only instrument of the Scots. Haydn too, in one of the most recent of his symphonies composed in London, has taken up this sort of burlesque. But such things should be introduced very cautiously, and (more importantly) very seldom. In this connection we may take note particularly of the third movement of the third sonata; it contrasts peculiarly with the beautiful preceding Allegretto …

This critic was put off by the 32-bar main theme of the rondo of the third sonata, all over an unmovable tonic D in the bass. But here Clementi aimed for a very special effect: he marked those 32 bars ‘open pedal’, such that the tonic chord, together with hugely dissonant sounds, are all enveloped in an atmospheric haze—one of the more successful, surely, of his experiments with this kind of texture. During the following decade Beethoven repeatedly indicated a similar use of the pedal, as in the ‘Moonlight’, ‘Tempest’, and ‘Waldstein’ sonatas, and in the Third Piano Concerto.

Clementi’s Sonata in B flat major Op 46 was published in 1820, over two decades later than the other compositions in this recording. But there is ample testimony that during the intervening years Clementi composed a good deal of music that he published later or not at all. This sonata for the most part sounds much more like a work of the 1790s than of 1820. It is dedicated to his ‘friend F Kalkbrenner, as a mark of esteem for his eminent talents’. Kalkbrenner, the famous German-born piano virtuoso, had settled in London in 1815; perhaps Clementi resurrected an older sonata to honour his younger colleague. Both of the fast movements of this sonata have diatonic, thin-textured opening materials that suggest an earlier time of composition. The middle slow movement is a leisurely Adagio cantabile, encrusted with lavish ornament; but below we often hear bits of the polyphonic motion that is a hallmark of this composer.

Leon Plantinga © 2010


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