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Muzio CLEMENTI (1752-1832)
Sonata in G minor, Op.50 No.3 ‘Didone abbandonata – scena tragica’ (1821) [22:48]
Twelve Monferrinas, Op.49 (1821) [22:51]
Richard Burnett (piano)
rec. November 1982, Finchcocks, Goudhurst, Kent
AMON RA CD-SAR 8 [46:00]

Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas is only the most familiar of musical responses to the story of Dido, abandoned by Aeneas, in a narrative most influentially presented in Book IV of Virgil’s Aeneid, although its elements considerably predated Virgil. Before Purcell, Cavalli had put Dido on the Venetian operatic stage in 1641, using a libretto by Gian-Francesco Busenello, who also wrote the libretto for Monteverdi’s Orfeo, in his Didone. Post-Purcell, Metastasio’s ‘drama-for-music’, Didone abbandonata (1724), is reputed to have been set by some sixty different composers, beginning with Domenico Sarro and including such figures as Galuppi, Albinoni, Hasse, Porpora, Jommelli, Paisiello and Mercadante. And then, of course, there was Berlioz’s Les Troyens. Painters, poets, dramatists, novelists – all have re-imagined the story of Dido and Aeneas again and again. There is much fascinating information on their work to be found in a book edited by Michael Burden: A Woman Scorn’d, Responses to the Dido Myth (1998).

The volume edited by Burden makes no mention, however, of Clementi. Yet in the third of his Opus 50 sonatas Clementi included what is, I believe, the only instrumental composition to which he gave a programmatic title – Didone abbandonata – scena tragica. Insofar as this is an instrumental work, he may have been remembering the tenth of Tartini’s Opus 1 Violin sonatas, which also carries the title Didone abbandonata, and is also in G minor. Or perhaps he was thinking of his sonata as related (in idea rather than being in any sense a transcription) of one of the settings of Metastasio’s text, or even a purely instrumental response to that text. Whatever its precise genesis, it is fair to say that what Clementi was trying to create might reasonably be described as ‘an opera without words’ in the sense that Mendelssohn’s later piano pieces seek to be ‘songs without words’.

Clementi’s sonata is a fascinating, if flawed, piece. Its brief first movement – marked largo patetico e sostenuto – functions like an overture. The music is densely chordal, with a largely descending melodic shape that finishes with a sense of promising more than it has yet delivered – at which point we are presumably intended to imagine the raising of the curtain in this mental theatre. The ensuing allegro is by turns gently melancholy and passionately disturbed, surely intended as a musical representation of the conflicting passions in the mind of the abandoned queen as she moves to understand what has happened to her and moves, of course, towards eventual suicide. There’s a discontinuity to the music in this movement, an abruptness which doesn’t always satisfy but for which one can see Clementi’s reasoning. The adagio dolente which follows is thoughtful and elegiac, harmonically quite adventurous and full of sustained pedal work which produces some quite beautiful effects in this recording. The final allegro (allegro agitato e con disperazione it is marked) is powerful stuff, expressive of Dido’s inner rage and also, it seems to me, of her final immolation. This is music which clearly registers Clementi’s familiarity with Beethoven’s piano sonatas, though the comparison – inevitably – doesn’t really do him any favours. But the fact that the music falls short of Beethoven (what doesn’t?) is no reason to deny that it has real qualities of its own and is well worth getting to know. Richard Burnett plays it with sympathy and evident understanding. I mean no disrespect to him, however, if I say that I would like to hear a seriously top-class pianist tackle this piece. It could fit very interestingly into the right recital programme.

The other half of Burnett’s programme consists of twelve short ‘Monferrinas’, altogether slighter and far less demanding technically. The Monferrina is a dance in 6/8 time originating in the region of Monferrato (sometimes referred to as Montferrat in the English speaking world) in Piedmont – where, incidentally, some of the best spumante also originates; the dance had something of a vogue in early nineteenth-century London, where it was sometimes known as the monfreda or monfrina. Some listeners may be familiar with Hummel’s Op.54 Variations for cello and piano ‘Alla Monferina’. These twelve examples by Clementi (the longest is three and a quarter minutes long, the shortest only one minute and twelve seconds) are essentially parlour pieces. For the most part they have charm and vivacity on their side – even if none of them achieve memorability.

The music on this CD is interesting and Richard Burnett’s performances contribute to the listener’s enjoyment of it. Just as important, however, is the instrument on which it is played. What we are treated to – and it is a treat – is the well-recorded sound of a Grand Pianoforte, dated 1822, by Clementi and Co. A piano, that is to say, made by Clementi’s own company and almost exactly contemporaneous with the music which makes up Burnett’s programme. It has a compass of six octaves; it employs leather covered hammers and still has its original strings. As Richard Burnett explains in his booklet note "the three pedals operate (from left to right) keyboard shift to due corde and una corde, sustaining and harmonic swell". There are additional strings which, when a damping bar is raised, can be allowed to vibrate sympathetically – this allows for some attractive and atmospheric effects, well used (and not overused) by Burnett. The instrument, we are told, was restored by William Dow in 1982. This present recording was previously issued on a Saydisc LP in, I think, 1983 or 1984. It well deserves the present reissue. It should appeal to all with a fondness for the surely underrated Clementi or to those with a special interest in the evolution of the piano.

Glyn Pursglove


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