Muzio CLEMENTI (1752-1832)
The Complete Piano Sonatas – 4
Six Sonatas Op 25 [71:09]
Sonata in F major Op. 26 [9:40]
Three Sonatas Op. 33 [37:43]
Sonata in E flat major Op. 41 [17:15]
Howard Shelley (piano)
rec. 2-5 February, 2009, St Giles the Martyr, St Silas Place, London. DDD
HYPERION CDA67738 [71:09 + 65:15]

Volumes II and III of this excellent series were both reviewed positively on MusicWeb International. The latest, Volume 4, is now available; and is - unsurprisingly - up to just as high a standard. These two Hyperion CDs for the price of one should be snapped up immediately. Collectors of the series will not want to wait. If this music is new to you, this fourth CD is in a series which constitutes the best introduction available to this repertoire.

Susan Alexander-Max has two CDs of Clementi's early sonatas (Wo 14, Op. 1a no. 2, Op. 2 no. 4, Op. 7 no. 3, Op. 8 nos 1 and 3, Op. 9 no. 3, Op. 10 no. 1, Op. 11 no. 1 and Op. 13, no. 6) on Naxos 8555808 and 8557695. Peter Katin's collection on Athene 24113 ranges across Opp 7, 13, 24 and 25. Richard Burnett (Amon Ra 8) has Op. 49 and Op. 50 no. 3. The most ambitious after Shelley's is the three-CD Brilliant Classics set (93338) by Costantino Mastroprimiano; so far only volume I has appeared with a survey to Op. 41 (though without Op. 25). None of these has the unassuming authority and sheer exuberance of Shelley, though.

These are but two of the qualities brought by Shelley so appropriately to this neglected yet highly pleasurable music. The pianist is clearly enjoying this project as much as we are: listen to the way he flies through the allegro spirito of Op. 33 no. 3 [CD.2 tr.7], for example: assured yet receptive. Shelley's style is also relaxed and undemonstrative. The tempi throughout the Op. 25 set, for instance, are considered, and lovingly coaxed from the music - rather than imposed on it. The opening movement of Op. 25 no. 3 [CD.1 tr.6] 'unfolds' as when we explore a garden at ground level, rather than from above.

The same is true of dynamics: there is great variation from pianissimo to mezzo-forte throughout the dozen or so pieces presented here. This adds to our sense that Clementi too is enjoying himself. But neither Shelley's tempo nor his volume is ever wayward or lax. The variations that Shelley uses are always in the service of the music's architecture and inner logic. Although Shelley pays very careful attention to phrasing, allowing each musical idea to emerge, run its course and fold into the next, he constantly has in mind the particular place which each musical thought has in Clementi's overall design. For keyboard music on the watershed between the Galant, Classical and even Romantic idioms this is not easy. Shelley does it by immersing himself in the forward motion that Clementi insists upon. The sense that something of a journey is undertaken in Op. 33, no. 1 [CD.2 trs.3-4], for example, is considerable; nothing so extensive as in Beethoven, but somehow more considered than Mozart's.

When phrasing and tempi are needed to convey a little more anguish or 'care', Shelley has all the technique and virtuosity that are needed. Yet they are informed by thoughtfulness. Take the allegro con fuoco of Op. 33 no.2 [CD.2 tr.5], for example: something verging on mild panic is needed; at the very least a sense of urgency, with the hint of the 'unwanted' about to descend. And this is just what Shelley delivers - though from the piano stool, not the stage.

Never breathless or aggressively relentless, Shelley's stewardship of the sense of direction which characterises the composer's invention is truly superb. For it would have been all too easy to err by stopping to muse in the slower passages or movements (as in the opening of the first maestoso e cantabile movement of Op. 25 no.4 [CD.1 tr.8], for example). But this is not Romantic music. It would not have benefited from such reflection. Rather, tauter and more disciplined explorations of the relationship between tonality and structure. The pianist's adhesion to these aspects of Clementi's idiom is truly exemplary: in the mid section and climax of the same movement, for example. As if he were reading a poem to us with the entire text projected over his shoulder.

Could Clementi have felt out of things in the backwater of the Dorset estate where he was engaged by Peter Beckford - in the same way Haydn did at Eszterháza? It might be only barely fanciful to attribute to Shelley a (successful) attempt to represent the tension between Clementi's initial isolation and his later celebrity in the London musical scene of the late eighteenth century. If Shelley's mercurial approach to the music is an acknowledgement of any self-doubt which the Roman Clementi may perhaps have felt in exile, it is a persuasive and fitting one. And one that comes only with profound familiarity with the music.

This is all the more remarkable when one remembers that Clementi probably wrote several of the sonatas played here for amateur performance. Shelley effortlessly exacts from them every ounce of profundity, joy and beauty. He is particularly effective in conveying Clementi's economy without sounding either clipped or rushed. It has to be said, though, that Shelley's pace is generally on the lively side. This adds, though, to our sense of excitement and - above all - of involvement in the music.

There is a short booklet with notes on the background and a rather cursory survey of the sonatas themselves. The acoustic on the two CDs privileges the piano over any kind of spurious atmosphere. All in all an excellent and important addition to the repertoire.

Mark Sealey