Muzio CLEMENTI (1752-1832)
The Complete Sonatas -Vol. 5
Sonata in C major, Op. 34, 1 [18:31]
Sonata in G minor, Op. 34, 2 (1795) [21:57]
Six Progressive Sonatinas, Op. 36 (1797) [37:01]
Sonata in C major, Op. 37, 1 [15:27]
Sonata in G major, Op. 37, 2 [13:10]
Sonata in D major, Op. 37, 3 [14:29]
Sonata in B flat major, Op. 46 (1820) [25:43]
Howard Shelley (piano)
rec. 6-9 October 2009, St Silas the Martyr, London, UK. DDD
HYPERION CDA67814 [77:51 + 67:28]
Earlier CD sets of Howard Shelley's projected six-volume chronological survey of Clementi's complete piano sonatas have been very favourably reviewed on MusicWeb International (Volume II, Volume III and Volume IV). It would be odd if this, the penultimate release in the series, were any the less welcome.
It's not. It lives up in every way to the extremely high standard set by Volumes I to IV and should be bought immediately by everyone collecting the series. What's more, the music on this generous almost two and a half hours of immaculate playing by Shelley, who must now be considered Clementi's 'reference' pianist, makes a persuasive case for those as yet unfamiliar with the repertoire to look into it more closely.
It has to be said that the fact that Shelley and Hyperion have chosen to present Clementi's sonatas in chronological order does go some way towards favouring the later CDs: the music is more inventive, mature and thoughtful. At times on this set, the echoes of Beethoven and Schubert are quite enchanting. The same world that also produced Haydn and Mozart is never far away either; though without the greater depth of those four greatest composers. Shelley, though, suggests to the open-minded listener that Clementi had different goals. And then successfully shows us what those goals were and how Clementi met them.
Shelley has managed to give us, indeed, such a strong sense of Clementi's musical world that lovers of the piano and Classical period piano in particular may well want to explore the earlier sonatas. There is, indeed, a consistency and conviction in Shelley's playing which is barely tempered by his informed enthusiasm for the composer. The result is a freshness and dynamism which surely make as much of the music not only as it can ever bear but also as it receives from anyone else on record.
CD 1 contains the two Op. 34 sonatas - No.1 in C major and No.2 in G minor as well as the delightful Sonatinas, Op. 36. Apparently, Op. 34, 1 may originally have been a concerto and Op. 34, 2 a symphony. There are but a few traces of the drama and wider vistas which would have been necessary for even the most modest of symphonic works. Shelley nevertheless easily and gently exposes the drama and rather grander conception of the works. Breadth, depth, insight and gravity are uppermost amongst the qualities which he brings to his interpretations. Nor does one feel this is because Shelley has 'worked his way into' the music. Rather, that the music itself makes its own case - for this is still somewhat 'secondary' repertoire - despite the tradition in which Clementi worked … a favourite of Beethoven, teacher of Field and - ultimately - an inspiration for Chopin.
The G minor is particularly poignant. Like Schubert, Clementi is at his most effective in minor keys. This sonata is a gem. Yet Shelley has no intention of over-milking the emotion. He uses just the right amount of expression. That is typical of this admirable series. By 'progressive' Clementi meant that the six sonatinas Op. 36 get increasingly difficult - for the pupil for whom they were written to play. This isn't what Shelley concentrates on. Rather, on their musicality and the joyous - and at times, admittedly, exploratory - ideas in the development of which the composer is so confident. And in which he delights without a hint of the ephemeral or trivial. At this point in the series, though, we really ought to be assuming that Clementi's piano works are anything but trivial.
CD 2 has the three Op. 37 sonatas - No.1 in C major, No.2 in G major and No.3 in D major with the more substantial B flat major sonata, Op. 46. It's easy to agree with Shelley's assessment that Op. 34 remains of greater profundity and is likely to carry more listeners with it than the three Op. 37s, good though they are. They have a pastoral feel to them without overdoing the obvious primitivism which Clementi uses. Shelley is obviously very much at home in this idiom. Of course he takes the technical challenges which they present easily in his stride. Op. 46 was published over 20 years after the Op. 37 three; it nevertheless sounds like the composer's earlier work. Like some of the passages in the Op. 37s', ornament and polyphony of otherwise relatively simple themes are preoccupations of Clementi's. Shelley neither exploits nor overlooks this aspect of the music. But he brings out its essence very effectively.
The acoustic on these two CDs is good; the booklet that comes with them informative. All in all it's hard to see how this project could be more worthwhile. Shelley continues to combine his acute perceptiveness with a wholly transparent technique to make the most of music which really deserves to be better known. If this set can't further this process significantly, it's hard to see what can.