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Muzio CLEMENTI (1752-1832)
Piano Sonata in C, Op. 2, No. 2 (c. 1773) [13:00]
Piano Sonata in G minor, Op 7, No. 3 (1782) [12:28]
Two Musical Characteristics, Op 19 (c. 1787) [3:32]
Piano Sonata in F minor, Op 13, No. 6 (1784) [16:32]
Piano Sonata in D, Op 40, No. 1 (1802) [20:46]
Ilia Kim (piano)
rec. 2017, Studio “I Musicanti,” Rome

Piano Sonata in E flat major, Op. 23, No. 1 (c. 1790) [9:06]
Piano Sonata in F major, Op. 23, No. 2 (c. 1790) [16:51]
Piano Sonata in E flat major, Op 23, No. 3 (c. 1790) [10:36]
Piano Sonata in C major, Op. 34, No. 1 (c. 1795) [20:58]
Fantasia con variazioni, Op. 48 (Au clair de la lune) (1821) [11:45]
Juan Carlos Rodríguez (piano)
rec. 2017, Auditori Pau Casals, El Vendrell, Taragona, Spain
NAXOS 8.573608 [69:37]

Muzio Clementi’s piano sonatas are sturdy creations which hold up well in the hands of radically different interpreters. Clementi’s love of setting difficult performing challenges appeal to the virtuosi (Vladimir Horowitz, Lilya Zilberstein, Nikolai Demidenko), who find something fierce and compelling in these technically demanding works. There are the fortepianists (Jos van Immerseel, Andreas Staier), who discover a musical world of great delicacy and astonishing colours. And there are the performers on the modern piano, who offer clean, brisk performances in the Mozart-Haydn lineage (Martin Roscoe, Howard Shelley). These new recordings by Ilia Kim and Juan Carlos Rodríguez are welcome entries in this last camp, technically adept, but emphasizing Clementi’s place toward the edge of the canon of high classicism.

Although there are many Clementi recordings, there remains a sense that he is not quite a serious composer, like Mozart. We have Mozart himself to thank for that view. Frequently mean-spirited toward his rivals, Mozart called Clementi a charlatan and, after a 1781 Christmas eve performance brought both pianists before Emperor Joseph II, dismissed him as a mere technician, counseling his sister Nannerl not to damage her fingers by playing Clementi’s sonatas. Contrast this to Beethoven’s enthusiasm for Clementi’s music, and his granting Clementi the rights to publish Beethoven’s works in London. Yes, Clementi was not only a pianist and composer, but also a publisher and manufacturer of pianos. Clementi’s merchant side (like Pleyel’s) may have damaged his reputation as establishment aesthetics welcomed the rise of art for art’s sake.

Ilia Kim offers mostly early works. The Op. 2 no. 2 sonata opens with a well-sculpted theme, whose restraint quickly gives way to all manner of decorations. If you think Clementi is lightweight, this will not change your mind. But if you appreciate his fascination with technical issues, you will enjoy the decorations, trills, leaps and general showing off. Kim brings out the disquiet in the more serious G minor sonata (Op. 7 no. 7). The drama is quiet but intense, until the presto conclusion, which explodes in a passionate outburst. Op 13 no. 6 in F minor is one of Clementi’s finest works, with a dramatic Allegro agitato, a sadly elegant and florid song, and a hypnotic presto, all thoughtfully dispatched by Kim. Clementi wrote the D major sonata Op. 40 no. 3 in 1802, fifteen and more years later than the other sonatas Kim plays, and it seems weightier, even symphonic. Beethoven’s influence is apparent; it is no shock to learn that Clementi subsequently began writing symphonies instead of piano sonatas. Kim’s playing brings clarity to Clementi’s more complicated lines. Kim gets excellent sound from a Yahama piano. Clementi the multicultural piano merchant from London would likely have enjoyed the idea of a Korean artist playing his works in Italy on a Japanese instrument.

Juan Carlos Rodríguez devotes over half of his program to the three sprightly sonatas of Op. 23. Highlights include the opening Allegro Molto of No. 1, which teases pleasingly before finding a darker mood in the development. No. 2 is centered upon a poised and shapely Adagio. The third of the series has only two movements, ending in an Arietta con variazioni. Rodríguez adds the first sonata from Op. 34. Its first movement is energetic, if somewhat generic, but the rondo includes a fetching Turkish episode. Rodríguez adds a late work, the 1821 Fantasia con variazioni on Au clair de la lune. This makes a satisfying conclusion, with eight clever, demanding variations ranging from a graceful, languorous dance to stormy emotions, triumph, and ending with the flash in which Clementi reveled.

Both pianists turn in admirable performances. Kim could cherry-pick her favorite sonatas, while Rodríguez, contributing to a Naxos series with half a dozen other pianists, may have had less choice in his selections. Both play modern instruments, but with appropriate restraint, feeling no need to amp up the thrills with volumes of sound unavailable in Clementi’s time. The recording quality on the Naxos disc is good, but Piano Classics does even better for Kim.
Richard Kraus



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