It's barely six months since we looked at Volume
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
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
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.