Notes and Editorial Reviews
op. 9/1–3; op. 10/1–3; op. 11/1; op. 12/1–4.
Howard Shelley (pn)
HYPERION 67717 (2 CDs: 138:05)
Clementi does not have good press. Mozart famously knocked him, and he had the further misfortune to be introduced to generations of pianists (including, I’m sure, many of
’s readers) through his dippy op. 36 sonatinas,
presented as a pedagogical halfway house between Diller-Quaile and real music. He had a champion in Horowitz, of course—but even Horowitz didn’t boost him the way Bernstein boosted Mahler. And while there’s been a flurry of recordings recently,
’s writers have been, for the most part, less than enthusiastic. Yes, Susan Kagan is a strong advocate, praising his “amazing variety of musical content” (31:1); so is Patrick Rucker, who called him a “master of brilliantly resourceful keyboard-writing” (31:2). But the prevailing winds are blowing in the opposite direction, with critics either damning with faint praise or slamming him outright. James Carson, reviewing the first installment of Shelley’s chronological series (the set under review is the second) had some positive words for Clementi’s historical importance, but still confessed that he found himself “fatigued” by two-and-a-half undiluted hours of his early music, suggesting that you might prefer the composer in smaller doses (31:6). Peter Burwasser pointed to the composer’s lack of depth and pathos (27:5), while Jerry Dubins called him “glib” (27:4). When confronted by Pietro Spada’s complete run of the Sonatas, Laura Rónai turned up only scattered nuggets of pleasure (32:1).
I’d love to side with the enthusiasts here—but especially in this early- to middle-period music, I do find him somewhat foursquare and predictable. The theme and variations that cap op. 12/1, more than twice as long as any other movement here, is especially conventional—so much so that Michelangeli, who had it in his repertoire, felt he had to cut, reorder, and recompose it to get it into shape. It’s not simply that, as Dubins pointlessly put it, Clementi is no Beethoven: after all, who is? More to the point, he’s no Dussek, either. Still (and here comes some more faint praise), his music is melodically attractive, architecturally sound, imaginative (and often brilliant) in its passagework, rhythmically alert, and (especially in the op. 11 and op. 12 material here) lit up with flashes of drama.
Clementi certainly has a persuasive promoter in Howard Shelley. Shelley has recorded a wide range of repertoire both famous (Mozart and Rachmaninoff figure prominently) and obscure (for instance, the Piano Concerto by Francis Edward Bache)—but over the past few years, his most remarkable Hyperion recordings have centered on what I’d call the pale Romantics, composers like Hiller and Moscheles who could never commit to the Lisztian ethos of excess or even to the more intellectual principles of intensity-through-rigor we find in Brahms and Bruckner. The same discretion that has worked so well in Hiller and Moscheles brings Clementi to life too. There’s no lack of grandeur where required (especially in op. 11). But what’s most striking here is Shelley’s tact: his sensitivity to harmonic nuance (evident as early as the first movement of op. 9/1, but especially valuable in the slow movements of op. 12); his digital facility, which allows the passagework to sparkle without glare; his rhythmic zest (listen to the skip of the first movement of op. 12/1); his ability to distinguish tones of voice without exaggeration; and, perhaps most important, his sense of whimsy (try the last movement of op. 9/3). These are, in sum, delightful performances—and while even the most unfamiliar of this music takes you back to very familiar places, the journey is inevitably agreeable.
Constantino Mastroprimiano and Susan Alexander-Max have recently recorded collections that overlap with this one, collections that have gotten excellent reviews (31:1 and 31:2)—and if you insist on the tang of early instruments, you might well want to start there. Those who can accept the plusher sound of a modern Steinway, though, are urged to give this elegant set a tumble, especially since the two CDs are priced as one. Fine sound, excellent notes.
FANFARE: Peter J. Rabinowitz
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