MusicWeb International is currently completing
its survey of Howard Shelley's multi-CD set of Clementi's piano
music on Hyperion
Shelley's are idiomatic, pithy, modern performances. By contrast
here's an equally enjoyable recording from the 1960s by the distinguished
American pianist Lamar Crowson. From another generation, pianist
for the Melos Ensemble for many years, Crowson was better known
in Europe - he died in South Africa in 1998 at the age of 72 -
than he was in North America. Yet Crowson was widely respected
wherever he played and recorded - often with the great and the
good of that era … notably with Barbirolli, Barenboim, Boulez,
Boult, Colin Davis, Pierre Monteux, Emanuel Hurwitz, Janet Baker,
Itzhak Perlman and Jacqueline du Pré.
The first thing you'll notice on this ADD CD in the Decca Eloquence series is the quality of the sound in the eight piano pieces by Clementi which it contains. After over forty years the dynamic is inevitably a little boxy. But there is next to no wow, flutter or acoustic distortion. The ear is led directly to the essence of the music. To its gentle beauty. To the serenity, indeed, of Clementi's invention: as in, for example, Crowson's playing of the sublime Adagio e cantabile
of the C major Opus 33, 3 sonata [CD 1 tr.7]. At times it sounds more like Schubert, Chopin or Schumann. Yet Crowson's playing has a clarity and directness that take the movement's secondary marking, con grand'espressione
, literally. For him that means 'Find the expression in the music, don't paste it on afterwards'.
It also means 'Take the structure of the music fully into account'; such that the tripping and turning of the movement that follows, a presto
, takes everything that's gone before into account. Yet without trying to find rhetoric that's not there. Clementi's sonatas are wholes. They don't need over-dramatic conclusions or histrionic pauses. The melodic invention is enough. Crowson knows this and unobtrusively lets his playing expose what Clementi intended not only minute by minute, bar by bar - but also over the usually three movements in which they were written.
At the same time, it's clear by the time you've listened to but a single movement on these CDs that Crowson has no reticence about infusing the music with his own legitimate vision; to bring pathos or bravado to the sound we hear. It's hard to know whether he was in any way championing Clementi in the same way as the English Member of Parliament Peter Beckford did in late 18th century London. If he was, it's a quiet, confident and undemonstrative advocacy based on the music as beautiful, flowing and expressive. Not on any implicit comparisons with Mozart or Beethoven. It has to be said that Clementi does not have the depth or breadth of those other composers writing at the same time. He lacks the ability to through-compose to the extent that they did. But his lucid textures, variations in tempi and melodic and harmonic surety make Clementi a composer to explore - in either Crowson's or Shelley's hands - if it's a repertoire that in any way appeals to you.
Significantly, and perhaps as a result of his chamber music experience, Crowson is at home in all the idioms in which Clementi writes. For example, there is a lyrical and almost Schubertian romanticism to another of the slow movements, the lento e patetico
of the F sharp minor, Opus 25, 5 [CD 1 tr.10]. It too is made only the more poignant by the presto
which follows; but in Crowson's hands the theme isn't allowed to forget the pain that precedes the finale, so neither are we.
Crowson has the skill and perception to make these contrasts, reinforcements and parallels work. The first movement of the B minor, Opus 40, 2 [CD 2 tr.1] moves from a plangent and delicate Molto adagio e sostenuto
to a sprightly Allegro con fuoco
. Crowson approaches this first by fully honouring each part of the movement. Then he plays the speedier and livelier portion in a way that it respects what came before it. Afterwards, you realise that he had also conceived the slower section if not in anticipation of the faster, then in the full knowledge of it. The pianist's sense of structure is as strong as his technical grasp of each and every of its parts.
Nowadays one could make a stronger case for performance on a fortepiano than was done in the 1960s. A movement like the maestoso e cantabile
start to Opus 25, 4 in A major [CD 2 tr.3] has the intricacy and intimacy that would certainly have benefited from the lighter instrument's timbre. Nevertheless, Crowson's sensitivity to the fragility of Clementi's lines and chordal writing make good just the same.
The booklet that comes with the CDs contains useful background and some scene-setting with respect to Crowson. Though little explanation of why these recordings were re-released. In a way, that doesn't matter. They're utterly compelling. Shelley will give you comprehensive coverage. But this two CD set from Crowson makes an excellent sampler and/or introduction to some of Clementi's best piano music.