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Hyperion Records

CDA67819 - Clementi: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 6
The Colosseum and the Arch of Constantine by Giovanni Paolo Panini (1691-1765)
Musée d'Art Thomas Henry, Cherbourg, France / Bridgeman Art Library, London
Recording details: December 2009
St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Annabel Connellan
Engineered by Ben Connellan
Release date: October 2010
Total duration: 125 minutes 43 seconds

'This must be one of the most handsome of all recent homages to a lesser-known composer, with nothing about the performances, recording quality or presentation falling short of first-class … Shelley is a perfect advocate for this music, the limpidness of his playing being allied to utter sensitivity of dynamic and phrasing … a heartening achievement on all counts' (Gramophone)

'Each volume has shown remarkable variety from Clementi's fervid imagination … for all the temptation to compare Clementi with his more familiar contemporaries, a clear and distinctive voice appears through this overview of the complete sonatas. Shelley's technical security allows him to project a sense of ease and spontaneity … the complete set proves a benchmark which I doubt will be moved for a very long time' (BBC Music Magazine)

'This is a most attractive and sparkling account on Clement's final sonatas and brings to a satisfying conclusion Howard Shelley's survey of Clementi … the sound captured on the recording more than lives up to expectations' (International Record Review)

Piano Sonatas, Vol. 6
Allegro  [6'17]
Finale: Presto  [5'12]
Allegro  [5'04]
Allegro vivace  [8'12]
Adagio dolente  [5'57]

Howard Shelley’s series of Clementi’s Piano Sonatas has received the highest critical acclaim and reawoken interest in this important body of piano music. Today, the composer has been overshadowed by his great rivals; but, as this unique series has shown, the best of his sonatas can equal Mozart and Haydn and were clearly a huge influence on the young Beethoven.

This sixth and final volume contains some of the most complex, virtuosic and large-scale works that Clementi wrote for the keyboard, written for performance in London concert halls, by the great pianists of the day, for a fashionable and discerning audience.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Muzio Clementi, born in Rome in 1752, came to England in his early teens, and essentially remained there for the rest of his long life. He made his early career as a virtuoso pianist and piano composer, like all public solo performers at the time playing mainly his own music. From 1780 to 1785 he travelled in Europe, performing for Marie Antoinette at the French court and in various German cities; in late 1781 at the court of Joseph II he took part in the celebrated piano ‘contest’ with Mozart. After various further adventures on the Continent he settled down in London during the years 1785–1802 and set about making his way in that city’s incomparably rich and diverse musical culture.

During this period Clementi appeared as piano soloist (and composer) in the Hanover Square Grand Professional Concerts, in the rival La Mara–Solomon Concerts, and in a great many ‘benefit’ concerts, that is, entertainments in which the beneficiary was the organizer and principal performer for the evening. Sometimes Clementi’s contribution was the performance of his own sonatas—the playing of sonatas at concerts being something of a London speciality—and sometimes it was his concertos. A review from 1790 exclaimed:

But the performance beyond all others to astonish, was Clementi’s concerto on the Piano F: what brilliancy of finger, and wonderful execution! The powers of the instrument were never called forth with superior skill, perhaps not equal; for however we venerate the expression of the late [Johann Samuel] Schroeter, he scarcely equaled Clementi’s rapidity.

Such was his reputation as a performer that Clementi became a much sought-after teacher, charging at one point one guinea per lesson (meat in late eighteenth-century London cost about five pence per pound). And in 1798 he embarked upon a new venture in the formation of Longman, Clementi & Co., manufacturers of pianos and printers and sellers of music.

In 1802, as the peace of Amiens offered a temporary respite from the ravages of the Napoleonic wars, Clementi, together with his tractable young Irish student John Field, set off on an eight-year tour of the European Continent. This time the conquests he sought had to do less with concerts than with commerce, with selling his company’s pianos and procuring new music for publication. But before setting off, Clementi made arrangements for his own firm’s publication of his three sonatas which appeared in September 1802 as ‘Opus 40, Book I’. This is the first of Clementi’s music to appear after 1800, and it seems quite at home in the new century. These sonatas are technically demanding, rather experimental in form, and of large dimensions, intended, it seems, for professional pianists or for advanced students like Field—but apparently not for Clementi’s own performances, for by this time he had essentially ceased playing in public.

The opening Sonata in G major is Clementi’s only sonata with four truly independent movements. But instead of a minuet or scherzo, for the third movement he presents a group of severe two-voice canons, abounding with the austere, often astringent sounds that come with his thin-textured imitative writing. The remaining movements of this first sonata are big-limbed structures with a good deal of leisurely ornament. The first shows the many internal cadences and two-handed figuration that suggest a missing orchestra and a possible origin as a concerto movement. The second is a luxuriantly ornate Adagio, sostenuto e cantabile in the distant key of E major; its irregular, sweeping figurations of as many as twenty notes to the rhythmic unit prefigure the piano sounds heard in Paris salons three decades later, as, for example, in Chopin’s Nocturne in F sharp major, Op 15 No 2.

The following Sonata in B minor shows Clementi again at his best when writing in a minor key. Still experimenting restlessly with large-scale formal plans, he once more arrives at a solution that is for him entirely new: there are two big movements in the tonic (both sonata-allegro types), each preceded with a slow introduction. The Largo mesto e patetico introduction to the final movement produces a subsidiary theme that is adopted as the first material of the Allegro that follows, and the Largo itself appears (as in the first movement of Beethoven’s ‘Pathétique’ Sonata) at the point of recapitulation. The first movement starts with an introduction of high pathos and stabbing dissonance; even its middle section in the relative major (D major) suggests not relief, but something like melancholy resignation. The Allegro con fuoco e con espressione that follows is one of Clementi’s fine driving, appassionato movements in a minor key, akin to the memorable first movement of his Sonata in G minor, Op 34 No 2.

The last Sonata of Op 40, in D major, may be the most impressive of the lot. This piece, too, begins with a slow introduction, in D minor, again a grim one, with grandiloquent double-dotted rhythms above a resolute tonic pedal point. But this bleak mood is quite dissipated by the cheerful first theme of the Allegro that follows. Casually polyphonic, and set initially over a tonic pedal point, this theme moves gracefully toward the subdominant, and then—sounding for all the world like Mendelssohn—gestures toward the relative minor before safe resolution in the main key. As in the other sonatas of Op 40, Clementi is generous here with his musical ideas. We get three quite distinct and stable themes in the dominant area, and yet another new one in the development section. But the movement seems to cohere nonetheless, thanks mainly to its carefully unified harmonic scheme that involves the sort of third relations we associate with Schubert.

The Adagio con molto espressione in D minor that follows is something of a compromise between a proper slow movement and (recalling the B minor sonata of this set) an extended slow introduction to the finale. Its opening theme, one of several distinct kinds of material Clementi offers us, imitates the elegant shape and rhythmic ambiguity of the opening theme of his earlier sonata in A major, Op 33 No 1. Then comes the finale, a bright, cheerful rondo whose central episode in D minor is mainly a canon (one of Clementi’s best) based on that opening theme.

During the years from 1802 to 1810 Clementi travelled restlessly on the European continent, with stays in Paris, St Petersburg (twice), Riga, Berlin, Zurich and Rome. Along the way he occasionally acquired new students, some of whom accompanied him on his further travels. In Berlin in 1804 the fifty-one-year-old Clementi married a local young woman of eighteen years who tragically died in childbirth a year later. The last of his three stops in Vienna—where he sought mainly to negotiate with Beethoven for publication of his music—happened to collide with Napoleon’s second occupation of the city in 1809, which prevented his return to London until the following year.

The sonatas ‘Opus 40, Book I’, published in 1802, were never followed by a ‘Book II’. In fact no new sonatas of Clementi were to appear before 1820, the year of his single Sonata Op 46 (see volume 5 of this series, CDA67814). The following year saw his final publication of sonatas, the three of Op 50, dedicated to his fellow Italian who had made a splendid career in Paris, Luigi Cherubini. There is good reason to believe, however, that Clementi had composed much of this music years earlier, and had intended it as the second instalment of Op 40. Perhaps some unfavourable reviews of his music around 1800 contributed to a certain caution about publishing his work; a notice in a Leipzig journal from 1807 refers to several major new compositions of his which Clementi ‘is determined not to release to the public until he has satisfied himself that they are perfect’.

The first sonata of Op 50, in A major, has an opening movement with something of the transparent texture and lyrical melody that Clementi seemed to associate with this key, as in his Sonata Op 33 No 1, and even as far back as Op 2 No 4. For a slow movement Clementi writes a rather leisurely two-voice canon flanked by two statements of a lugubrious, harmonically potent Adagio sostenuto e patetico that anticipates the subject of the canon in its middle section. The finale, a spritely Allegro vivace, mixes traditional harmonies with the distinctly nineteenth-century sound of the expanded upper range of the piano.

The second sonata of Op 50, in D minor, is Clementi’s only sonata in that key. It is a consistently strong piece in which several of his oldest compositional habits appear, now convincingly absorbed into his latest style. The blustery first theme of the opening movement, for example, is set entirely over a tonic pedal point—one of Clementi’s oldest habits. The music in the secondary key, F major, has the abundant ornament that is customary in his late ‘lyric’ style, but was anticipated as early as the Sonata in A major Op 2 No 4, published in 1779. The slow movement, Adagio con espressione, is one of Clementi’s atmospheric, highly ornamented and tonally digressive late-period slow movements. There follows a witty Allegro with a brusque, home-spun main theme that we hear a number of times in rondo-fashion; this music undergoes sophisticated transformations that make for a satisfying conclusion to this strong sonata.

Best known of the sonatas of Op 50 is the last one, subtitled ‘Didone abbandonata’, the only one of his instrumental compositions to which Clementi applied a programmatic title; this may well be a reference to Metastasio’s libretto of that name, set by a number of eighteenth-century composers. The Largo patetico e sostenuto introduction (equipped with the further subtitle, ‘scena tragica’), built mainly upon a simple descending stepwise figure, has a thick chordal texture that echoes the typical piano sound of the 1820s. This stands in stark contrast to the following Allegro ma con espressione, the transparency of whose main theme recalls Clementi’s two earlier sonatas in G minor, Op 7 No 3 and Op 34 No 2. The second movement, a rhapsodic, harmonically digressive Adagio dolente, leads directly into the final Allegro agitato, e con disperazione, the strongest movement of the piece. Clementi’s trademark is firmly stamped upon its opening theme: a falling melodic line with a dactylic rhythm that places a long note (and usually a strong dissonance) at the beginning of each bar. Much of this movement has a uni-directional quality resulting from a homogeneity of rhythmic motion and the repeated cadence patterns that had been a time-honored trait of Italian keyboard music since the days of Domenico Scarlatti. Clementi’s last sonata is of its own time, but also an affirmation of stylistic and expressive aims that he had embraced for his entire career.

Leon Plantinga © 2010

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