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Muzio CLEMENTI (1752-1832)
The Complete Piano Sonatas - Volume 3
CD 1
Sonata in B flat major Op. 13, no. 4 [11:54]
Sonata in F major Op. 13, no. 5 [12:15]
Sonata in F flat minor Op. 13, no. 6 [15:27]
Sonata in C major Op. 20 [14:46]
Sonata in F major WO3 [8:25]
CD 2
Sonata in E flat major Op. 23, no. 1 [8:22]
Sonata in F major Op. 23, no. 2 [14:21]
Sonata in E flat major Op. 23, no. 3 [10:42]
Sonata in F major Op. 24, no 1 [12:54]
Sonata in B flat major Op. 24, no 2 [12:19]
Howard Shelley (piano)
rec. 30 September - 3 October 2008, St Silas the Martyr, London. DDD
HYPERION CDA67729 [63:17 + 59:03]
Experience Classicsonline

It's barely six months since we looked at Volume II of this outstanding series of the complete piano sonatas of Muzio Clementi from Howard Shelley, on Hyperion.

Once again the pianist plays a modern Steinway, which has to be the only minor cavil. Rather, we should happily see past that - to the gentle, original and - it has to be said - too infrequently heard music of Clementi, who was, amazingly, born a couple of years after Bach died, and himself died just five years after Schubert. That makes Clementi's music significantly advanced for its time… adventurous use of melody; freedoms ('liberties', one might almost say) with tempi, and experiments with harmony redolent of Mozart - the end of the allegro from the F major sonata (Opus 13, no. 5) [CD1 tr.4], for example.

But Shelley is just as alert to the essence of the music as a beautiful artefact almost regardless of the ground it was breaking and written to please the predominantly London audiences who first heard it during a time when most of the rest of Europe was experiencing political and social change. That is, the pianist brings a gentleness and peace, a serenity, to the sonatas - chiefly by being ever conscious of the structure of each one.

Ever aware of the, often sombre, mood of these works too, Shelley has totally absorbed them in such a way that their presence is felt as much when they're over as it is when being listened to. Such 'moods' are less pronounced than those in Haydn's Sturm und Drang works - and decidedly more tempered than even middle Beethoven. But not so detached as Mozart's darker passages.

This emotional charge is hard to communicate without centring on, say, key changes - much of Clementi's more persuasive piano writing is in minor keys - or places where the composer dwells on a colourful idea. Instead, Shelley achieves these expressive affects by concentrating on the architecture. By playing, one is tempted to say, as Clementi might have played; by stopping well short of disregarding the emotions which he knew he had put into the sonatas; and assuming that we all know sadness, joy, loss and so on sufficiently well for nothing to need labouring. To achieve such a distance yet retain as much style as Shelley does is remarkable - and contributes to the many reasons why this release must be so highly thought of.

But his approach is not relaxed; nor 'easy-going'; still less lazy. Shelley remains in command at all times and is certainly 'driving' the music. He has made it his own, seems to have done so more than in the previous two volumes of this series. But not in the sense that his own performing repertoire is so broad that he can look at Clementi askance. Rather because he is completely aware that the music's internal logic and development make certain demands on a sensitive pianist - and Shelley is up to every such demand.

Again, for example, the variations in tempi that Shelley employs in that same sonata's (Op. 13/5) presto [CD.1 tr 6] indicate a confidence not to impose his will onto music that doesn't need it. Generally, Shelley is happy to shine light in corners that might otherwise be missed - by judicious use of rallentando, for example. Such skill is noticeable as the extremely light touch in passages such as the middle of the largo of the F minor (Op. 13, no. 6) [CD.1 tr.8]. It confers a delicacy on the music that one associates as much with Uchida's or Brendel's late Schubert. It also hints at the personal turmoil through which the composer passed during the years in which these sonatas were written - but without hanging their musical impact on it.

The Op. 13 sonatas (published in May 1785) are so arranged here that we move from the good to the better to the best: number 6 is remarkable in more ways than one. But the two that follow (the Op. 20, Without Op. 3) have much in them to please. Those, and the Opp. 23 and 24 on the second CD were written when - for whatever reason - Clementi seems to have put the traumas of his love affair and unhappy travels in Europe during 1780-83 behind him and was allowing the London musical scene to sweep him into some sort of order and routine. The music, though, is anything but routine. Once more, Shelley effortlessly gets to its essence in every way.

The recording is plain and clean, where by 'plain' is meant that nothing interferes acoustically with the sound of the piano. The liner-notes are informative, and the double CD represents good value for money. If you've been waiting for this third volume happy or enthralled with the other two, don't hesitate to buy it. If you're new to the repertoire and wonder if this series really represents the landmark it seems to, be assured on the evidence of this volume alone that it does.

Mark Sealey


 


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