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Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757)
Muzio CLEMENTI (1752-1832)
Piano Sonata in G minor, op. 50, no. 3 (Didone Abbandonata) (c.1721) [20:39]
Piano Sonata in F major, op. 33, no. 2 (pub.1874) [11:50]
Twelve Monferrinas, op.49: no. 4 in C major [1:52]; no. 3 in E major [1:54] & no. 12 in C major [2:34] (c.1821)
Piano Sonata in D major, op. 40, no. 3 (pub.1802) [19:45]
John McCabe (piano)
rec. 1981, Artworkers’ Guild, Queen Street, Bloomsbury, London
DIVINE ART DDA21231 [2 CDs: 57:55+58:30]

Liverpool-born John McCabe (1939-2015) needs no special pleading. Regarded by many as one of the most important late 20th/21st century British composers, he was also a pianist with huge technical skill, profound musicianship and a sympathetic understanding of the wide range of music he performed. For me, my introduction to McCabe’s playing was the Haydn piano sonata cycle back in the mid-1970s. Now issued on CD, this remains my go-to account for these remarkable and absorbing works.

The present double-disc set is a reissue of two Hyperion Records (A66025 and A66057) released on vinyl in 1981. I never owned these LPs but recall seeing them in the formerly unique Banks’ Music shop in York. 

Domenico Scarlatti was born in Naples in 1685 and died in Madrid in 1757. His reputation rests on his harpsichord pieces and his influence on the development of the forte-piano. Scarlatti composed some 555 ‘sonatas’ and several other pieces for the keyboard. Many of his compositions reflected the urbane dance forms of his day: he was influenced by contemporary Italian music as well as Spanish folk dance. The overarching style of Scarlatti’s music mirrors the trend towards ‘modern’ pianism. He eschewed the reliance on counterpoint so integral to the Baroque era and began to explore ‘new’ musical textures using chords, scalar runs, arpeggios and tremolo effects. Scarlatti wrote a considerable number of operas, which are now largely forgotten, although several have been revived.

I will not give my thoughts about each of these sonatas of which there are a dozen examples here. I suggest that the listener takes them a couple at a time: they deserve concentration. It is difficult to put these works into a chronological scheme, as most were published after Scarlatti’s death. John McCabe plays these works on a modern concert grand piano with no detriment to the success and enjoyment of this music.  The tempi of some of these sonatas were criticised in a contemporary review in The Gramophone (January 1982). I am not an authority on the performance of 18th century Italian music; all I can say is that thus music seems to me to be played with a studied balance between flair, rhythmic freedom and a characteristic attention to detail. Others may disagree. I enjoyed them all, especially my favourite here, the Sonata in G minor, K.43.

Any understanding of Muzio Clementi’s style must begin from a historical perspective: at his birth, 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. In his final years he was pushing the boundaries towards the pianism of the Romantic age including Chopin and John Field.

Clementi’s earlier sonatas tended to be sub-Scarlatti, but he soon moved away from two-movement towards three movement examples which came to define the genre. He has been dubbed ‘the father of modern piano playing’ who pioneered a greater understanding of the mechanical and technical differences between the older keyboard instruments and the ‘modern’ piano.

For those of us who battled with several of Clementi’s didactic works over the years, the hearing of his major piano pieces as presented on the second CD in this set, will be a pleasant surprise. Clementi composed more than a hundred piano sonatas, with the ‘easier’ ones being designated ‘sonatinas.’ I appreciate the characteristically lighter touch of Clementi’s style. In many ways I enjoy his piano music more than that of Beethoven. Not all will agree with me…

John McCabe’s well-chosen Clementi programme includes three full sonatas and three numbers from the remarkable Twelve Monferrinas, op.49

The Piano Sonata in G minor, op. 50, no. 3 (Didone Abbandonata - scena tragica) is the only sonata to which Clementi gave a ‘programmatic title’. It was his last essay in the genre. The work is loosely based on an operatic libretto that tells of the tragedy of Dido and Aeneas. The music evokes Dido’s emotions on seeing her lover depart – ‘rage, jealousy and yearning’. This sonata is full of attractive things with a slow introduction followed by music of lyrical perfection. The slow movement is a ‘lament’ which is surely one of the most beautiful things from Clementi’s pen. The mood changes with the finale which romps through a wide range of sentiments with passion and fury predominating. Glyn Pursglove in a review has given a good summing up of this impressive sonata. He declares that it might ‘reasonably be described as “an opera without words” in the sense that Mendelssohn’s later piano pieces seek to be ‘songs without words.’’ I would swap much ‘classical’ piano music for the slow movement, ‘andante dolente’ of this sonata - and the finale fair takes one’s breath away; it is amazingly played by John McCabe.

We are in less-troubled waters with the short Sonata in F major, op.33, no.2. This work is marked out by the slow introduction, followed by a stormy ‘allegro con fuoco.’ There is no ‘slow movement as such’; the work concludes with an intimate and unthreatening ‘presto.’ It is one of those pieces that give pleasure from the first note to the last.

Instead of playing another sonata, John McCabe provides three extracts from Clementi’s Twelve Monferrinas, op.49. They are in direct contrast to the more profound ‘late’ sonatas. This set of pieces explores Italians folkdances from Montferrat in the Piedmont region of Italy. It is interesting to note that these dances had a certain cult following in London during the early years of the 19th century. Clementi took these ‘pop’ songs and reworked them as vibrant piano miniatures. They demand attention to detail, a sense of fun and a creative approach to expression - which is just what John McCabe gives them.

The final work on this second disc is the Piano Sonata in D major, op. 40, no. 3, first published in 1802. The liner notes explain that it could have been written anytime in the previous five or six years. The mood of this work is one of tragedy. The opening movement is certainly an impressive feat with a slow introduction, followed by an ‘allegro’ that deploys some creative modulations.  Once again, Clementi provides a middle movement that is effectively a dirge. Who knows what heartbreak he is lamenting? The final ‘rondo’ is a tour de force from start to finish, although there is an episode in the minor key which is deeply felt. The major key returns and all is well.

The documentation by the late Harold Truscott and supplemented by the Monica McCabe is informative, with a good introduction to both composers and an enlightening discussion of each work. There is an enjoyable essay about how these recordings came about, as well as a biographic note about John McCabe.

John McCabe plays this music on a Bösendorfer piano, which was his favourite make of piano at that time. For me this is a good choice. I concede that early-instrument enthusiasts may balk at the use of a modern grand piano and not a contemporary instrument such as a Broadwood or an earlier forte-piano. As always in these matters, rightly or wrongly I feel that if Clementi or Scarlatti had had a modern concert grand, they would have relished it. Besides, I love my Bach and Handel played on the piano, so why not Muzio Clementi, too?

John France

Contents (Scarlatti)
Sonata in G major, K.105 [5:23]
Sonata in G minor, K.426 [5:39]
Sonata in D minor, K.517 [2:54]
Sonata in D major, K.490 [6:22]
Sonata in F minor, K.69 [3:28]
Sonata in F major, K.518 [4:37]
Sonata in E major, K.28 [3:39]
Sonata in E major, K.215 [5:43]
Sonata in C major, K.133 [5:14]
Sonata in G major, K.259 [5:08]
Sonata in G minor, K.43 [3:02]
Sonata in C major, K.460 [6:45]

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