Notes and Editorial Reviews
Overture in C. Symphonies: No. 3 in G,
“The Great National”;
No. 4 in D
Francesco La Vecchia, cond; O S di Roma
NAXOS 8.573112 (71:32)
A riddle that may be posited is: “When is a symphony not a symphony?” There are, of course, a number of possible answers, but in the case of Muzio Clementi (1752–1832), this becomes a rather relevant issue. Clementi was an important composer for the keyboard, and his duel with Mozart in front of Emperor
Joseph II is the stuff of legend (as are Mozart’s less than charitable comments on Clementi’s music and performance). As a composer of orchestral works, however, the entire situation becomes quite murky. When he established himself in London at the end of the 18th century, he achieved some renown as a teacher and publisher; one only needs note his protégé John Field, who Clementi apparently abandoned while on tour to Russia, as a pupil who was to achieve important things. He did, however, also dabble in the composition of orchestral music, eventually composing an undetermined number of works even as Napoleon was ravaging Europe and finally defeated. To be sure, like most composers of the time, he had a wide range of works, and in 1787 apparently even published a couple of symphonies as his op. 18 (available on the companion disc to this Naxos release). But the late works were and remain problematic, for even though they were featured on concert programs in the post-Napoleonic era in Northern Europe, somehow they failed to survive intact, forcing the inevitable “reconstruction” by modern scholars, namely Alfredo Casella and Pietro Spada. The work of these musicologists has been hampered by a web of conflicting sources, non-sequitur fragments, and portions which have been lost to time. Nonetheless, they have succeeded in cobbling together the works featured on this disc; two complete symphonies and the torso of a third (here euphemistically labeled an Overture).
This is not the time or place to discuss these reconstructions (here done by Spada), but suffice it to say that the editions do seem musically cohesive, albeit with no guarantee that these are in any shape or form what Clementi actually intended
. Still, they do allow for a glimpse into his work as an orchestral composer. My only concern is the extraordinarily heavy orchestration, including trombones, which seems to give the works an overweening sense of modernity at times. To be blunt, the textures are often extremely dense, sounding like these were companion pieces to, say, the Schubert Great C-Major, and I am not at all convinced that this is what Clementi, trained in the Italian Classical tradition, was after. The brief notes state that the symphonies are “more closely [tied] to the tradition of Haydn and Mozart than they are to post-Eroica Beethoven,” with a passing nod to the latter’s obvious influence. My view is that this seems far-fetched, particularly given these reconstructions. The “Overture,” for example, has a nicely waltzing main theme foreign to Classicism, and the lyrical second theme is positively Schubertian. It is performed in a Beethovian manner, but the appearance of an um-chuck-chuck accompaniment figure places us fairly close to the world of Italian
opera. It is also rather repetitive. The symphonies, on the other hand, show a wider variety of styles, much of which probably is due to the reconstruction process. The so-called “Great National Symphony” in G Major (which nation I cannot fathom) has a slow, plodding opening followed by an obvious hymn, which is then repeated. Some of the faster portions sound heroic, but then Clementi devolves into a pattern reminiscent of Rossini. The second movement, with its massive brass introduction, also features variations on a hymn, and the Finale is positively in the manner of Haydn’s London symphonies; light and frothy. The D-Major Symphony offers more depth, with a solemn, mysterious D-Minor opening that seems to create a dramatic scene, which then dissipates into an
that would not be out of place in one of Schubert’s early symphonies, both in tone and texture. The cantabile is suitably languid, and the off-beat minuet in B Minor positively Beethovian. Despite the thick orchestration, Haydn returns in the rondo Finale, save for a brief B theme that I would swear is Beethoven.
In short, the reconstructions offer a pretty mixed bag, but in Spada’s defense, I will say that his works reasonably well, given the tortuous path he probably had to negotiate to get a playable, cogent score. As for the performance, the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma does a rather nice job. The tempos seem in order and the ensemble fits well together. The sound can be a bit muddy sometimes, particularly when the entire brass corps plays together, but this may be a consequence of the microphone placement or venue (I can’t decide which). My final verdict is that if you are collecting early 19th-century music and want an alternative to the multiple Schubert and Beethoven discs out there, this might prove interesting, but one should be aware of the caveat that the question of whether all of it is as Clementi wished it to be is still open.
FANFARE: Bertil van Boer
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