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Hyperion Records

CDA67632 - Clementi: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 1
Roman Ruins with the Blind Belisarius by Giovanni Paolo Panini (1691-1765)
Leeds Museums and Art Galleries (Temple Newsam House), UK / Bridgeman Art Library, London
Recording details: June 2007
All Saints' Church, East Finchley, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Annabel Connellan
Engineered by Ben Connellan
Release date: February 2008
Total duration: 151 minutes 51 seconds


'Listening to this opener in Howard Shelley's complete cycle, recorded on a pristine-sounding modern piano, it is hard to imagine anyone else ever making them sound better … Shelley reveals this by treating each and every one of these works with the utmost respect, his constant attention to the subtlest details of touch and phrasing meaning not only that things are never allowed to descend into the routine, but that he is more than able to respond to those moments when Clementi really does find a vein of poetry … the Andante cantabile of Op 8 No 1 is a gem, the excellent Op 7 No 3 is strongly expressive throughout … Shelley realises them all while also coping coolly with the more finger-breaking exhibitions of virtuosity … Shelley's performances, which seem well capable of achieving definitive status, make you wonder if Mozart was hiding some genuine discomfort' (Gramophone)

'Shelley's playing is warm and expressive throughout, and there's enough enjoyment here to make one look forward to the continuation of his series' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Clementi was a master of intricate structure and dynamics, as Shelley's elegant readings vividly demonstrate' (The Observer)

'Launching his complete Clementi cycle in impressive style, Howard Shelley tosses off chains of thirds and octaves with elegant virtuosity, and brings an ideal expressive flexibility to the more personal sonatas' (The Daily Telegraph)

'I have long admired Shelley's spaciousness of phrase and generosity of tonal range, and this latest offering certainly does not disappoint on either account. The Opp 1 and 2 Sonatas benefit from a fresh and spirited viewpoint, the leisurely lyrical lines nevertheless beautifully compact … this set may well encourage listeners to reappraise Clementi, not in the shadow of Mozart of Beethoven but in light of the composer's inestimable contribution to classical style' (International Record Review)

'Wonderful playing, superb sound and a valuable addition to the catalogue' (Classic FM Magazine)

'Shelley in a nutshell: sparkling clarity, perfect sense of line and style, and deep respect for the musical idiom of the early Classical keyboard works' (Pianist)

'The sonatas 'proper' recorded here each consist of short movements. Every one is a delight; this is good-natured music deisgned to appeal, which it does with grace, civility and clarity. Brilliance is not denied, though—the 'Spritoso' opening movement of the F major work … is a rumbustious number that recalls Domenico Scarlatti's flamboyance. Slow movements are unfailingly lyrical and dance forms add elegance … Howard Shelley, his piano beautifully recorded, plays with immense style and affection, alive to the music's sparkling and intimate scale—invention that charms and invigorates. It will be fascinating to chart Clementi's later works in the genre of the sonata with Shelley as the consummate guide' (International Piano)

'This first Hyperion volume of a projected complete recording of all the sonatas is cause for celebration, and not only because it is laid out chronologically. Howard Shelley has a special feel for this music, and in his hands, these marvelous pieces are indeed revealed in all their translucent textures and melodic invention. The attractive price tag (two for the price of one) together with superb sound and authoritative annotations complete a fine first helping of what should be a resounding success all around' (

Piano Sonatas, Vol. 1
Allegro comodo  [2'49]
Spiritoso  [4'38]
Allegro assai  [2'46]
Maestoso  [3'25]
Spiritoso  [4'01]
Larghetto  [3'29]
Rondeaux  [2'53]
Larghetto  [5'13]
Moderato  [3'53]
Presto  [6'10]
Allegro assai  [4'36]
Spiritoso  [4'34]
Allegro di molto  [5'39]
Prestissimo  [2'12]
Allegro  [4'28]
Mesto  [3'56]
Allegro  [5'39]
Allegro agitato  [2'31]
Allegro  [5'24]
Presto  [3'31]
Allegro assai  [4'53]
Rondeau: Allegro  [3'06]
Presto  [4'50]
Larghetto  [4'50]
Allegro assai  [4'20]

This is the first volume in a complete chronological survey of the Clementi sonatas which we hope to complete in six ’2 for the price of 1’ double CD sets released over the next three years. There is very little competition for this repertoire and indeed this volume appears to include the first ever recording of Clementi’s six sonatas Opus 1.

Muzio Clementi was for much of his long career one of the most famous musicians in Europe. Around the turn of the nineteenth century his public esteem was probably second only to that of Haydn, and, a decade or so later, Beethoven. But unlike the reputations of these other two, Clementi’s fame as a musician rested almost solely upon his exploits, as both player and composer, at a single instrument, the piano. And the vast majority of his compositions are sonatas for that instrument. This is a fascinating body of work which spans European musical life from Scarlatti to Chopin.

This is Howard Shelley’s hundredth CD release and Hyperion congratulates him on an extraordinary achievement.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Muzio Clementi was for much of his long career one of the most famous musicians in Europe. Around the turn of the nineteenth century his public esteem was probably second only to that of Haydn, and, a decade or so later, Beethoven. But unlike the reputations of these other two, Clementi’s fame as a musician rested almost solely upon his exploits, as both player and composer, at a single instrument, the piano. And the vast majority of his compositions are sonatas for that instrument.

Clementi’s music for piano (or harpsichord in his earlier days) reflects something of the extraordinary length and diversity of the composer’s career. Born while Handel was still alive, he showed early influence from his music, as well as that of Italian keyboard composers from that time and a bit later: Domenico Scarlatti, Baldassare Galuppi and Domenico Alberti. By the time of Clementi’s death in 1832, Beethoven—and his ninth symphony and the late quartets—belonged to the past, Rossini had finished his career as a composer of operas, and Clementi had attended the London debut, in 1824, of the young Franz Liszt. Clementi’s music from the 1820s is fully consonant with its time: its harmonic idiom and leisurely melodic ornament might remind us of Carl Maria von Weber, perhaps the young Mendelssohn, or, on occasion, Chopin.

In between, in the 1780s, Clementi attracted a good deal of attention for his amazing virtuoso feats at the piano, duly reflected in his sonatas: most particularly lightning-fast runs for the right hand in thirds and octaves. But another factor also came clearly to the fore, especially in his minor-key sonatas from about 1782 to 1795. Here propulsive keyboard figurations, a penchant for high drama shaped by powerful climax, and a kind of expressive radicalism that kicks over the traces of eighteenth-century decorum, mark this music as a convincing model for the young Beethoven. Clementi’s Sonata in F minor, Op 13 No 6, of 1785, with its driving figurations, unsettling dissonance, and huge dynamic range, shows some remarkable similarities to Beethoven’s sonata in the same key, Op 2 No 1, composed a decade later. And there is good reason to think the young Beethoven knew Clementi’s sonata.

Born in Rome of humble parentage in 1752, the thirteen-year-old Clementi, already an accomplished keyboard player, caught the attention of an English traveller on his ‘grand tour’, Sir Peter Beckford, cousin of the novelist William Beckford. According to Beckford’s forthright explanation, he ‘bought Clementi from his father for seven years’, and brought him to his distinctly rural estate of Steepleton Iwerne, just north of Blandford Forum in Dorset. The idea was apparently that Clementi, as a single-person low-cost musical establishment for the place, would play for the entertainment of Beckford and his guests. Clementi spent the next seven years mainly in intensive solitary practice at the harpsichord. These years also saw his first publication, the Six Sonatas for the Harpsichord or Pianoforte, Op 1, of 1771, printed in London and dedicated to his English patron.

In 1774 Clementi, freed from his obligations to Beckford, moved to London, where he joined a throng of Italian and German musicians who made their way to this city, described in a contemporary account as ‘a veritable Peru for musicians’. He made his way there by teaching, and performing as keyboard accompanist at the King’s Theatre and as soloist in a few concerts. In 1779 his Sonatas Op 2 appeared, adding great momentum to his career as a performer and composer. What particularly caught people’s attention was the virtuoso aspect of these sonatas; a satirical musical lexicon of the time said Clementi’s sonatas ‘abound in passages so peculiar and difficult … we particularly allude to the succession of octaves with which he has crammed his lessons. Mr. Clementi executes these exceedingly well, and is a most brilliant performer.’

Encouraged by his recent London successes, Clementi embarked on a Continental tour in the summer of 1780. A report published in London, one of slightly doubtful authenticity, has it that he was much celebrated in Paris, and enjoyed the ‘most unqualified applause’ from the queen, Marie Antoinette. But Clementi’s subsequent appearance, on Christmas Eve 1781, before the queen’s brother Joseph II, sovereign of the Holy Roman Empire, is amply attested. This was the occasion of the famous piano contest between Clementi and Mozart, staged by the Emperor for the amusement of his guests, the Grand Duke Paul and Duchess of Russia. In turn the two players improvised on given themes and played selections from their own compositions. Clementi reported (partly via his later student Ludwig Berger) that two of his pieces he played were the Toccata Op 11 and the Sonata Op 24 No 2—the one that begins very much like the later overture to Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

Here is Clementi’s retrospective description of the contest: ‘Until then I had never heard anyone perform with such spirit and grace. I was particularly astonished by an Adagio and some of his extemporized variations.’ Mozart was less generous; two weeks after the event (evidently with thoughts of Clementi’s Toccata and its long stretches of parallel thirds in mind) he wrote to his father: ‘Clementi plays well, so far as execution with the right hand goes. His greatest strength lies in his passages in thirds. Apart from this he has not a kreuzer’s worth of taste or feeling—in short he is simply a mechanicus.’ And about a year and a half later his invective reached new heights: ‘Clementi is a ciarlatano [a charlatan], like all Italians’. But in the 1780s the ‘ciarlatano’ became an internationally admired player, while the pianist Mozart’s reputation remained largely confined to the environs of Vienna.

Clementi rose to prominence in conjunction with the surging popularity of that new instrument, the piano. In the cities of Western Europe middle-class households created a rising demand for this instrument, the ideal one for amateur players and growing children—especially daughters whose prospects for a favourable marriage would likely be improved by an accomplishment as attractive and decorous as piano-playing. Thus there was also a growing demand for piano music, the central genre of which became the sonata (often known in England as ‘lesson’). In the hands of musicians such as Clementi and Mozart the solo piano sonata had two principal uses: as music to be published and used by amateur players or children, and as material for the performances of the pianist-composer himself. (The difference is often clear: compare, for example, Mozart’s Sonata in C major, K545, published as a ‘little sonata for beginners’, with, say, his earlier Sonata in A minor, K310.) The sonata for four hands (on one instrument), and the ‘accompanied’ keyboard sonata were understood to be nearly exclusively for amateurs.

Clementi’s earliest surviving composition is the three-movement solo Sonata in A flat major, WO13 (‘WO’ means ‘without opus’), composed in 1765 when the thirteen-year-old was still in Rome. This piece and the sonatas of Op 1 (1771), while at points betraying their composer’s youth, show that he was fully conversant with the European keyboard practices of the time, while also revealing some real strokes of originality. For the most part this music consists of a spare melody-plus-accompaniment texture typical of what even then was called galant style. But a movement such as the appealing final Menuetto of Op 1 No 5, for all its simplicity, shows rather advanced rhythmic sophistication for a composer in his teens. The alternative first movement for the Sonata Op 1 No 2 (WO14), included in the present recording, is very likely a replacement which Clementi on a couple of later occasions seems to have preferred to the original movement.

During his first years in London (beginning in 1774) Clementi seems to have lived in some obscurity, composing and publishing little. But in 1779 the publication of his six sonatas Op 2 created something of a sensation. This collection is of the ‘mixed’ variety: three with accompaniments for violin or flute (Nos 1, 3 and 5) and the other three, included in this recording, for solo keyboard. And the distinction between these genres is plain: the accompanied sonatas are distinctly ‘amateur’ music while the solo sonatas are clearly for a professional player, most particularly for Clementi himself.

The Sonata in C major Op 2 No 2, which quickly became known as ‘Clementi’s celebrated octave lesson’, starts right out with octave runs which, at the prescribed Presto tempo, alla breve, are virtually unperformable. (We might recall Mozart’s later complaint: ‘He writes Presto over a sonata or even Prestissimo and Alla breve, and plays it himself Allegro in 4/4 time. I know this is the case, for I have heard him do so.’) The other two solo sonatas of this set also feature formidable technical challenges, notably dazzling bursts of scale passages in thirds. But these compositions, both perhaps more musically satisfying than No 2, also show a remarkably successful incorporation of the old and new. In the first movement of the A major sonata, the endings of the principal sections could have come straight out of Domenico Scarlatti (who was a contemporary of J S Bach): a thin-textured, running figuration, sparkling with ornament, arranged in repeated cadence patterns. The main melody of Sonata in A major is decorated with the sort of chromatically inflected turns in thirds that were to become a staple for a whole generation of pianist-composers from John Field to Chopin.

After the confrontation with Mozart in Vienna at the end of 1781, Clementi—to the local composer’s obvious discomfort—remained in the city for another four months. He then spent some months in Lyon, after which he returned to London, his reputation much augmented, to play a central role in the concert life of that city. Appointed the regular keyboard soloist at the prestigious Hanover Square concerts, he began to attract fine students, including the young Johann Baptist Cramer, who before long became a serious rival. Then in the spring of 1784 Clementi abruptly disappeared from the London concert scene and returned to Lyon where he embarked on an abortive elopement with his erstwhile student, the eighteen-year-old Marie Victoire Imbert-Colomés. After her father, a well-to-do citizen of the city, put an abrupt stop to this, the disappointed pianist retired to Switzerland for a time of solitude and solace.

The sonatas Opp 7 and 8, published in Vienna and Lyon, are a product of those tumultuous years of travel and adventure. These sonatas are all of the three-movement variety, while in the previous ones the two-movement Italian manner predominated. They show great gains over the earlier ones in expressive range and structural cogency. The very attractive whirlwind moto-perpetuo finale of the Sonata in G minor Op 8 No 1 is almost entirely built, à la Scarlatti, on a single running motif, while the first movements of this sonata and the other one in G minor, Op 7 No 3, achieve a satisfying unity in quite another way. Constructed from a wide range of diverse materials, these movements nonetheless create an impression of economy and wholeness through the subtle manipulation and reuse of fragmentary motifs. Most rewarding among these pieces as an entire composition is perhaps the G minor sonata of Op 7. Its second movement is an atmospheric Adagio of startling stylistic precocity, and its finale a virtuoso tour de force that revisits Clementi’s famous octaves, but does so in the service of convincing expressive ends. In these six sonatas Clementi achieves a new degree of harmonic density and expressive potency; in the process he seems to have found his own voice.

Leon Plantinga © 2008

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