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Muzio CLEMENTI (1752-1832)
Harpsichord Sonata in A flat major WoO 13 (1765) [17:48]
Allegro and Finale in E flat major WoO 22-23 (c.1820s) [9:45]
Rondo in B flat major WoO 8 (1802) [5:12]
Canon ad diapason in C Major WoO 11 (1829) [1:37]
Tarantella in A minor, WoO 21 (?) [1:09]
Six Monferrinas, WoO 15-20 (op. posth.) [9:50]
Twelve Monferrinas Op.49 (1821) [22:33]
Fourteen Melodies of Different Nations, WoO 9 No.5 Air russe (1814) [2:10]
Dominic Cheli (piano)
rec. Morse Recital Hall, Yale School of Music, New Haven, USA, 2015
NAXOS 8.573711 [70:38]

Most people who have learnt to play the piano have come across Muzio Clementi. Whether it is one of the elementary technical exercises, the well-known Sonatinas, or, for more advanced players, the massive collection of ‘graded studies’ Gradus ad Parnassum, students will have engaged with his music. The sheer quantity of pedagogical material gives some substance to the false impression that he was not a composer of interesting music for the concert hall or recital room. Yet this is not the full story. Clementi’s massive catalogue of piano music includes many serious art-works for the instrument. This embraces sonatas, duets, concertos and countless individual piano pieces. There are also a few orchestral works including several symphonies and a couple of overtures.

Muzio Clementi was born in Rome on 23 January 1752. After basic musical training in Italy he emigrated to London where he concluded his studies and embarked on his career as a concert pianist and teacher. He was one of the most revered virtuosi of his generation and is recalled as having indulged in a musical duel with Mozart: it was adjudged a ‘draw.’ He was deemed to be the ‘Father of Modern Piano Technique’ and was instrumental in developing the legato playing style (smooth and connected from one note to the next, as opposed to staccato, disjointed). He also ran a music publishing house as well as a piano manufacturing business. Clementi’s illustrious pupils included Ignaz Moscheles, John Field, J.B. Cramer, Friedrich Kalkbrenner and Giacomo Meyerbeer. Muzio Clementi died in Evesham, Worcestershire on 10 March 1832.

Any understanding of Clementi’s style must begin from a historical perspective: at his birth in 1752 Handel was still alive, and at his death Beethoven, Schubert and Weber had all been buried. His lifetime saw the stylistic transition from the late Baroque era into Romanticism by way of Classicism. Clementi’s music followed a trajectory from a highly virtuosic style towards a deeper lyricism, but the mood was nearly always ‘classical’ in its outlook.

This is not a CD to listen to end to end. I approached my review by creating four ‘mini recitals’ – the Sonata, the two sets of Monferrinas and the remaining works. This way, I feel that the listener can give justice to Clementi’s art.

The opening Harpsichord Sonata in A flat major on this CD is the earliest surviving work by Clementi. It was composed in 1765 when he was around 13 years old. This is a charming work that maintains the listener’s interest, typically through it amiable melodies. It was composed before Clementi came to study in England.

The Allegro and Finale in E flat major, dating from the around the time that Clementi was composing his Gradus ad Parnassum. Both may have been intended for this publication. The ‘allegro’ is written in classical sonata form, with a lovely second subject. The ‘finale’ is a fragment, lasting only 20 seconds.

I have always enjoyed Rondos: I like playing them, and feel that they are one of the most satisfying musical forms. Clementi’s Rondo in B flat is an impressive example. It dates from 1802, at a time when he was about to set off on a business trip abroad. The piece is well-balanced and is technically challenging, with much use of octaves and rapid descending thirds. Despite its superficially exuberant nature, there is considerable depth in some of the episodes. It is based on material the composer derived from his own Sonata, op.2 no.5.

The Canon ad diapason in C major was dedicated to Clementi’ pupil ‘Giovan Battista Cramer’, in 1829. The title, a Greek word, implies a canon at the octave and has nothing to do here with organ stops. The second voice enters an octave below the first in imitation. It is an attractive example of music that could have been a little bit dry as dust.

I could not find a date for the vivacious Tarantella in A minor. However, this is an energetic example of this once-popular Neapolitan dance which musically mimics an individual suffering from a tarantula bite!

The present CD concentrates on Clementi’s exploration of the vibrant Italian folk dance, the ‘Monferrina’. This was named after the district of Montferrat in the Piedmont region of Italy. It is an important wine producing area of Italy. Dominic Cheli presents two sets of these dances: Twelve Monferrinas, op.49 and the further Six Monferrinas, WoO 15-20: it is assumed that Clementi had intended to compose another volume of 12 Monferrinas, but only managed to complete six. At the beginning of the 19th century the Monferrina dance was popular in London. Clementi has clearly heard the ‘pop’ versions and decided to raise it into an art-form. All these dances are of a singular construction: they are typically in 6/8 time and often utilise major and minor sections of the ‘minuet and trio’ construction. They are usually carefree and charming in their mood, which contrasted with the greater profundity of the composer’s contemporary ‘late’ sonatas. The key to playing the ‘Monferrinas’ is developing as much variety of expression as possible to offset the formal similarities. In this sense, they are a challenge the pianist. Clementi has assisted in this direction by having a seemingly inexhaustible supply of melodic invention. Much use is made of the upper register of the piano.

The ‘Air russe’ is taken from a volume of Fourteen Melodies from Different Nations. This was composed in 1814 and featured voice and piano. I have not heard this piece before in either version, but the liner notes are correct in stating that it works well for piano solo. The ternary form balances a lively ‘song’ with something quite sad and reflective.

Dominic Cheli approaches these pieces with great skill and technical prowess. Not all of them are virtuosic ‘tour-de-forces’ but when a piece is lacking in difficulty it is often harder to interpret. I have not heard other versions of these works (Pietro Spada on the Art record label, for example) but feel that Cheli has provided definitive performances that match splendid playing with an appreciation of, and sympathy with, Clementi’s diverse, classically based style.

The overall presentation of this disc is excellent with a fine recording and extremely helpful liner notes by Keith Anderson.

For anyone who has ‘had’ to play Clementi as a piano student, this disc will come as a pleasant surprise: he wrote many concert and recital pieces and deserves to be regarded as an important composer of beautiful and enjoyable music.

John France



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