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Muzio CLEMENTI (1752-1832)
Symphony No. 1 in C major [25:27]
Symphony No. 2 in D major [24:00]
Symphony No. 3 in G major (Grand National Symphony) [26:57]
Symphony No. 4 in D major [28:24]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Claudio Scimone
rec. Henry Wood Hall, London, January 1978
WARNER APEX 2564 627622 [49:27 + 55:21]

I'd guess that most listeners know Clementi, if at all, as the composer of the sonatinas that have been the bane of generations of second-year piano students. Who'd have thought that this same composer would, in the symphonic arena, have been a full-fledged innovator?
The autograph scores and orchestral parts for these symphonies were discarded or otherwise variously went missing over the years, explaining their prolonged obscurity; the present editions are reconstructions by the musicologist Pietro Spada. Granted, without knowing the full extent of his reworkings and other contributions, it's hard to divine just how much of what we're hearing is original Clementi. Still, in whatever form, these scores, composed by Clementi in middle-age - when he had come under the personal and professional influence of Beethoven - are complex and forward-looking in a way that those ricky-ticky sonatinas could never have suggested.
Thus, the introduction to the C major symphony, with its steady tread and organlike wind writing, sounds suitably formal yet somehow "advanced," and it's not immediately clear why. The difference lies in the composer's use of the winds. In much Classical writing, the winds undertake melodic duties strictly as soloists; as a group, they're relegated to supporting the dominant string body. Clementi's novel stroke is to give the winds parity as a group with the strings, folding the contrasting timbral blocks in and around each other in the texture as contrapuntal units. Even the trumpets occasionally cut loose from the batteria to participate in this kind of linear deployment. This technique yields an unusually rich sonic tapestry - it's not too much to hear it as foreshadowing Bruckner - which gives the music its distinctive sound.
The inner movements, too, have their quirks. The theme of the Andante con moto is simple enough, but unfolds in off-kilter three-bar phrases before sidling into the standard four-bar units. In the Menuetto, Clementi speckles the light, crisp horn-and-woodwind theme with little double graces and breaks up the standard one-in-a-bar pattern with hemiolas, for a bumptious effect. A quicksilver Finale returns in tutti to the weightier feel of the first movement. The results are altogether refreshing, yet Classical form and technique remain inviolate.
The Fourth Symphony, too, looks forward in its details. Following a searching, mysterious introduction, the first movement's long-spanning principal theme anticipates Schubert's extended theme-groups, seasoned by "answering" phrases in contrasting timbres and registers and abrupt, Beethovenesque changes of mood. An airborne, lyrical 'cello melody affords some breathing space, after which the development wanders through a wide range of key centers with a cheerful, even boisterous energy. In the Andante cantabile, Clementi again splits segments of the theme among different timbral blends; the sound and scale are "big" for a Classical slow movement. The third movement is marked Menuetto, but suggests Beethoven's one-in-a-bar scherzi in its minor-key agitation and brisk scansion; soft tympani strokes add an earthy touch to the gentler Trio. The Finale's bouncy opening theme is jaunty and lyrical all at once, marked by dotted rhythms which also invade the smoother contrasting subject.
The other two symphonies, less overtly "different," can still take the listener by surprise. The G major gets its nickname from the injections of God Save the King into the slow movement - a big-boned, majestic structure with a strong brass presence - and the sprightly, elegant finale. The first movement's main theme is segmented in a way that throws the stresses onto different parts of the bar, and the exposition (not the development!) rather thoroughly explores fringe harmonies. The score is a synthesis of Haydn's rugged vigor and Mozart's more yielding expression, looking ahead to Schubert in the Minuetto's easygoing Trio.
The Second Symphony strikes a nice balance between busy "horizontal" activity and strong, "vertical" weight, recalling Haydn in the bustling energy of the outer movements. Note the way that, in the Minuetto's recap, Clementi gradually fills out the light, soloistic textures. In the finale's coda, the prominent horn entry and syncopated fugato are nice surprises.
The Philharmonia sounds good, though a bit muzzy and diffuse, and not just because of the recorded ambience - there's a hint of looseness in attacks and releases. This was one of Claudio Scimone's first excursions into the "big" repertoire, and I suspect that his baton signals, adequate for leading his Solisti Veneti chamber orchestra, may not have been sufficiently clear to elicit really precise playing from a large ensemble. Sonics are acceptable, though you might find a volume boost in order.
Stephen Francis Vasta


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