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Muzio CLEMENTI (1752-1832)
Compositions for Pianoforte, Vol. 1

Three Sonatas, op. 40, in G, b and d, (1801)
Three Sonatas, op. 50, in A, d & g – "Didone abbandonata" (1805)
Maria Tipo (piano)
First published 1978, location and date not given
WARNER FONIT 3984 27267-5 [2 CDs, 67:07, 72:47]


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If all the music by the British-based composer, pianist, teacher, publisher and piano manufacturer Muzio Clementi were as rewarding as the lyrically spontaneous Molto adagio, sostenuto, e cantabile of op. 40/1 or the first movement of op. 40/2 with its strong introduction and splendidly driving Allegro con fuoco, it would probably be under our fingers and in our concert halls with as much frequency as late Haydn. On the other hand, if it were all as dry as the wretched canons that make up the third movement of op. 40/1 we should scarcely find time for him at all.

Most honoured in the schoolroom, where his six Sonatinas remain the standard gateway to the classics – and rightly so, for their lively invention and formal clarity put them on a higher level than most similar works – Clementi was plainly far more important than the struggling student realises. Much admired by Beethoven (less so by Mozart), his long series of sonatas has always intrigued musicologists for its anticipation, in the earlier works, of certain aspects of the Beethovenian style, and for the proto-romanticism of a number of passages in the later pieces. Indeed, the exact relationship between Beethoven and Clementi is not always easy to establish. The first movement of op. 40/3, for example, after an imposing introduction, leads into a D major theme so identical in its pianistic texture (but not notes) to the opening of Beethoven’s op. 28, also in D major, that one can only gasp at such a blatant "crib". Clementi published this sonata in 1802, the Beethoven had been published in 1801, so Clementi could have seen the Beethoven, grabbed his pen and pinched the idea in time for his own sonata, but do we actually know when Clementi wrote this work? The booklet notes, while noting the similarity, do not offer a date for composition. We know for sure that Clementi’s previous sonata publication was in 1798, allowing the logical assumption that op. 40 was composed gradually in the intervening three years. Furthermore, as early as 1799 the publication of four new sonatas by Clementi had been announced. They were not issued, but what could they have been if not those of op. 40, maybe withheld for revision? The "crib", then, may in reality be a remarkable coincidence.

A fascinating if frustrating composer, no one has ever accused Clementi of excessive brevity. Just six sonatas on two well-filled discs suggests in itself something closer to Schubertian heavenly lengths than Beethovenian concentration, and the undoubted inspiration of the celebrated "Didone abbandonata" sonata is weakened by its sprawling structure. Pianists often turn to these sonatas in their own music studios, but less often feel impelled to play them in public. In many ways the greatest satisfaction is to be found in Clementi’s earlier and more disciplined sonatas; however, this album gives us some of his last works, op. 40, published in 1802 as already said, and op. 50 which though published in 1821 is thought to have been written around 1805.

Maria Tipo has been a widely respected name in Italy over the last few decades and plays with clarity and musicality. She is capable of great vitality and also shows much poetic sensibility. If I am not altogether convinced, this regards a problem which only an expert in Clementi editions can resolve. I shall start by declaring that I have before me the Henle Edition, edited by Sonja Gerlach and Alan Tyson, of op. 40/1-2 and op. 50/1. Over the last 50 years Henle have established a reputation for the rigour and scholarship of their Urtext editions and Alan Tyson is one of the leading experts in Clementi. The correctness of this text is presumably beyond doubt. The trouble is that it was not available to Maria Tipo since it was published in 1982. I also have, for these same three sonatas plus op. 40/3 and op. 50/3, a French edition published by Heugel in 1924. This has numerous divergences as regards dynamics and phrasing though they seem to agree over the actual notes. Whether these divergences derive from variant readings of Clementi’s own text or from the "creative" editing considered acceptable in those days I have no way of knowing. In any case, what Maria Tipo plays is often different again. Maybe she is "doing her own thing" but I have never supposed her to be that sort of pianist and I suspect she is scrupulously following some Italian edition current at the time of the recording.

To take one example, from b. 99 of the first movement the Henle Edition (you can follow this up on disc 1 between 4’ 56" and 5’ 18" of track 1) marks a steep crescendo leading to forte and then fortissimo at b. 103. The music then storms forward till the dramatic pause at b. 109. The Heugel edition is identical save for a the omission of a few extra sforzandos. But Tipo makes a longer, more gradual crescendo and then tapers away to reach piano before the pause, which is therefore not dramatic at all. Surely the effect would be much stronger as written in Henle and Heugel?

Then the slow movement which follows has, in Henle, numerous accents, sforzandos and hairpin crescendos and diminuendos which, if observed, would create an altogether more intense effect than the gently poetic rendering we have from Maria Tipo, who frequently reverses the indications entirely. In this case the Heugel edition contains precious few of these expression marks. Now if Clementi had really left the music as bare of expression marks as the Heugel edition (and maybe that followed by Tipo) lets us suppose, then Tipo’s solutions would be perfectly acceptable. But I cannot believe that Alan Tyson added all these things without just authority, and the nature of the music is thereby changed.

However, while Maria Tipo may be the victim of a poor edition, and cannot be blamed for this since the Henle was not available to her, at the same time her general approach (maybe under the influence of this edition) does seem inclined towards lessening the stronger qualities of the music. While I accept that to storm about in Clementi as if he were Beethoven can be counter-productive, I find her too willing to stem the flow and drift into a poetic revery of her own. Take the opening of op. 50/1. After just four bars of strong music there comes a passage marked dolce and con espressione. Tipo is certainly that, but does she have to lose all sense of direction so early in the movement? Certainly, Clementi must take his share of the blame, but a more forward-moving performance might have shown him in better light. The suspicion arises, as the discs procede their agreeable way, that one is listening to a vast collection of cadenzas.

You will gather that I am rather perplexed as to whether this is the best presentation of some often very fine music. The booklet contains two excellent essays, but you’ll be better off if you can read them in the original Italian, thereby avoiding such quaint phrases as the following: "The second movement, ‘Molto Adagio, sostenuto e cantabile’ has a very sweet beginning but then crumbles into a perhaps excessive proliferation of flowering that shadow the ‘cantabile’ qualities". "Of the three Sonatas the first is perhaps the less interesting, if not in the wide ‘Allegro maestoso e con sentimento’, so rich in figure inventions and characterized by an orchestra like sounding pianism".

Christopher Howell



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