The Complete Piano Sonatas, Vol. 6
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Howard Shelley’s series of Clementi’s Piano Sonatas has received the highest critical acclaim and reawakened 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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Now, in these last masterpieces, Clementi steps forth to assert his status as the elder statesman of the classical piano sonata, whose innovations the younger generation had quite rightly taken and run with. These include brilliant passages in octaves and other double notes contrasted with stark two-part writing; harmonic audacity; at times, a bluff and rough-hewn virility like nothing to be found in Haydn or Mozart; and--in these six late sonatas especially--a fascination with counterpoint--sometimes the writing is in as many FIVE parts.
For many years I have known opera 40 and 50 in recordings by Maria Tipo and Pietro Spada and found them both lacking. I knew there were greater expressive depths, sharper relief, and warmer passion in this music than these pianists presented. For the most part, Shelley gives us exactly that.
A case in point is the third movement of Op.40 No.1, the only one of Clementi's sonatas in four independent movements. It is a set of strict two-part canons doing service in the position of a menuet or scherzo. Without an inspired performer's creative intervention, this movement sounds dry and academic. That is precisely what it becomes in the hands of Spada, who plays it with unvarying metronomic regularity and almost no dynamic inflections--it doesn't even feel as if it belongs in the sonata. I have long wondered how Shelley would make this movement cohere with the rest of the work, and his performance is a revelation. He enlivens the stark two-part writing with subtle shifts of pulse and dynamics, thereby better integrating this piece into the rest of the sonata, while still allowing it to provide relief from the fuller textures, sunny brilliance and florid lyricism (so prophetic of the early romantics) found in the other movements.
Op.40 No.2 (in B minor) has only two movements, but both are large-limbed and pack an emotional wallop. Each is preceded by a slow introduction, and some of their material is transformed into thematic grist for the incendiary sonata-allegros that follow. Yet again, the minor mode calls forth one of Clementi's most highly dramatic works. As in the first movement of Op.34 No.2, the slow introduction to the second movement recurs just before the recapitulation. The tightening of tension in the presto coda will remind listeners of the prestissimo coda of Beethoven's "Appasionata," but this sonata was published in 1802, Beethoven's, in 1807. Shelley's fiery performance probably left scorch marks on the keys!
Op.40 No.3 begins with a slow introduction in "woe minor," which unexpectedly gives way to a placid melody which immediately and abruptly turns toward Clementi's most exhilaratingly athletic major key idiom--a contrast that permeates this movement. The mournful tone of the slow movement is cast aside by the bubbling finale.
The publication of Op.50 in 1821 is separated from Op.40 in 1802 by 19 years and the Sonata Op.46 of 1820. As with Op.40, these are large-limbed works, and Shelley's reading of the big A-major sonata (No.1) is a revelation. The first movement has the transparent textures and free-wheeling and florid lyricism Clementi seems to associate with A-major (vide Op.25 No.4 and Op.33 No.1). Irregular phrase structures and rapidly changing figuration give an impression of the freedom of improvisation, requiring concentration from both performer and listener. The opening gesture is prophetic of Schubert's posthumous Sonata in A, and the entire movement glows with an inner luminosity. The slow movement is a two-part canon flanked by two appearances of a darkly dissonant adagio, and is followed by a joyful finale.
Op.50 No.2 in D minor (Clementi's only sonata in this key) is one of his troubled minor-key works, and one of his finest. A driving, Beethovenish first movement is followed by a highly ornamented, harmonically discursive slow movement. The finale is an alternately witty and galloping rondo, with added interest in the form of quizzical pauses and hesitations. In Shelley's hands, this sonata at last receives the passionate performance it deserves (although I admit I haven't heard Earl Wild's).
The subtitle of the third sonata of Op.50--"Didone abbandonata," should not lead one to expect an event-by-event depiction of the story of the Queen of Carthage. It is merely an alert that the mood of this sonata is tragic--another of Clementi's minor-key masterpieces. "Didone" is generally more lyrical in its sorrow than its stormy opus companion in D minor. The chromatic mourning of the slow movement culminates in outraged outbursts of heavy chords. I wish Shelley had allowed the fury of the finale to be more distraught and unbridled. Much of the movement lies in the upper reaches of the instrument, and when it finally does descend to the bass, I wanted to hear a fuller tone for greater contrast--something Shelley does do in the first movement. Still, over three successive hearings, I found myself warming to this performance. Shelley's "Didone" is certainly the best I've heard so far, and that includes Tipo, Spada, AND John McCabe's (also for Hyperion).
A few bits of musicology geek trivia: Shelley has followed up his sonata series with a volume devoted to the capricci and major sets of variations, which also includes the Sonata Op.17 omitted from his official sonata series Clementi: Capriccios & Variations. Shelley plays the revised version of Op.2 No.2 (Vol.1), so the slow movement of the original version is omitted. Oeuvre I, which is a different (and inferior) set of works (mostly sonatas) based on material from Op.1. Both are in Clementi: Sonate, Duetti & Capricci, Vol. 1.
Now that Shelley's series is complete, I'll venture the following suggestions for collectors: Clementi lovers will, of course, want the entire series. Tenderfeet may want to begin with Vol.4 and then Vol.5, which contain a high proportion of the best and best-known sonatas. Then perhaps one might move on to Vol.1--to hear the first eruption of Clementi's new keyboard style in Op.2. Once a familiarity with Clementi's individual style is gained (and, hopefully, one's appetite is whetted), perhaps one might wish to move forward to the large-scale romantic auguries of Vol.6, and the bizarre capricci Of Op.47 in the supplementary volume.
Shelley's insightful and technically fluent interpretations should at last put to flight the tarring of these sonatas as arid and bare--a blinkered and despicable "received wisdom" that should now be buried once and for all. Further, more than Haydn and Mozart, Clementi is revealed as a harbinger of what was to become recognized as truly idiomatic piano writing, and one of the prophets of romanticism--no small accomplishment for either Clementi OR Shelley--bravo, bravo, arcibravo, gentlemen!
Other volumes in this series:
Vol.1--Clementi: The Complete Piano Sonatas, Vol. 1
Vol.2--Clementi: The Complete Piano Sonatas, Vol. 2
Vol.3--Piano Sonatas 3
Vol.4--Piano Sonatas 4
Vol.5--Clementi: Piano Sonatas - Vol.5
Capriccios and Variations: Clementi: Capriccios & Variations