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Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757)
Muzio CLEMENTI (1752-1832)
Piano Sonata in G Minor, op. 50 no. 3, “Didone Abbandonata” [20:38]
Piano Sonata in F Major, op. 33 no. 2 [11:49]
Monferrine, op. 49 (excerpts) [6:18]
Piano Sonata in D Major, op. 40 no. 3 [19:40]
John McCabe (piano)
rec. 20-22 April 1981, Artworkers’ Guild, London, UK
DIVINE ART DDA21231 [57:55 + 58:30]

The late John McCabe (1939-2015) was an excellent pianist and a composer of great skill. In the 19th century, the combination of pianist and composer was not an unusual phenomenon, but it became much more of an oddity as time passed. In our current era, classical music is very much a siloed profession. Few performing pianists compose, and most composers are incapable of playing the music they write. This is a shame, as the ability to compose informs performance, and the ability to perform greatly informs composition. McCabe was living proof of this. His compositions reflect a concern for audience comprehension that many contemporary composers lack; that concern was doubtless the byproduct of thousands of public performances. On the other hand, McCabe’s work as a composer influenced his priorities as an interpreter. His recordings of Haydn, Grieg, Elgar Nielsen, Hindemith, Bax (not to mention Scarlatti and Clementi) and others were direct and honest. He never spit-curled the music with affected mannerisms, but instead played the scores straight, attempting to get to the heart of the matter using the information provided on the page by the composer. Many of his recordings are revelatory in their plain-spokenness. Just to provide a single example: the brawny accompaniment to soprano Marni Nixon in Charles Ives’s General William Booth Enters into Heaven. This 1967 recording (from McCabe’s first-ever album) is not only played with great power, but also with a composer’s unique awareness of sonority. I have yet to hear another pianist equal McCabe’s strength and color in that work. One would never know from his effortless playing just how awkward that accompaniment is.

This two-disc set from Divine Art is a re-release of two LPs that McCabe recorded for Hyperion Records in the early 1980s. An affectionate reminiscence provided by McCabe’s wife notes that he recorded the roughly two hours of music over a three-day span. Three days is the amount of time it takes most musicians to record a single hour of music for a commercial recording, but McCabe believed that if you couldn’t nail a piece in three takes, then you shouldn’t attempt to record it. Hyperion wanted a single disc of Scarlatti, but he talked them into a package deal, recording twelve Scarlatti sonatas and three sonatas of Muzio Clementi.

Clementi has been adequately served on disc. His first major champion of the recording era was no less than Vladimir Horowitz, who learned and recorded a number of Clementi’s sonatas during his 1953-1965 sabbatical. Other great pianists to record the sonatas of Clementi include Arthur Loesser, Robert Goldsand, Lazar Berman, Maria Tipo, and Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. The three sonatas selected by McCabe are not among the Italian composer’s most-played works, but all three are worthy of investigation.

Clementi’s only programmatic sonata, “Didone Abbandonata” (referring to poor old Dido of Carthage), is the most interesting of the three. The music is operatic in the best sense of that word, bursting with Italianate tunes and a great deal of swirling drama. McCabe’s performance does not bestow upon the work the nervous energy (bordering on hysteria) and exaggerated grandeur that Horowitz found in some of the other sonatas, but he digs in and makes a serious case for the piece as a worthy companion to Beethoven’s sonatas. Clementi often shared Beethoven’s propensity for melodies that are in fact just small intervallic snippets repeated in varying inversions and sequences lined-up to simulate a single long melody (think of the first movement of Beethoven’s op. 109 for an extreme example). The spacious slow movement of Didone brings to mind the first movement of Beethoven’s “Tempest” (op. 31 no. 2) and the slow movement of op. 10 no. 3. McCabe’s playing is beautifully-shaped in the Adagio dolente, the long-breathed melodies rising and falling without interference from the pianist.

The other two sonatas do not possess the emotional depth of Didone, but would still be most welcome on recording and recital programs. One hears echoes of both Mozart and Haydn in the lighter F Major, while the D Major returns to Beethovenian lyricism and drama. It is of course unfair to Clementi to discuss him in that manner, given that he was a contemporary of those men, and taught them as much as he learned from them. Beethoven in particular loved the music of Clementi, assigning it to his pupils and praising its taste and melodic subjects. Mozart famously despised Clementi (“he is a mere mechanicus” and “a charlatan, like all Italians”), but thought enough of his bag of technical tricks to steal some for his own keyboard writing.

A note on the short fillers on the Clementi disc: the Monferrina is a Piedmontese folk dance originating in the town of Montferrat. Clementi’s op. 49 contains twelve of the little dances. The three selected by McCabe sound for all the world as if they were Bagatelles written by Beethoven (or in the case of no. 12 in C Major, by Weber). These would be perfect for late intermediate/early advanced piano students, and it is a mystery why they are not better-known in the world of piano pedagogy.

The Scarlatti disc is well-played, but the performances lack the sparkle found in the recordings of Horowitz, Tipo, Michelangeli, or more recently, Lucas Debargue. Some listeners may wish to hear a more grounded, sober approach to Scarlatti. If so, this disc provides an excellent opportunity to sample that interpretive stance.

After hearing the Clementi disc, my urge is to discuss the music itself, to explore the parallels between Clementi and his contemporaries, and to discover more of Clementi’s music. There can be no greater tribute to the artistry of John McCabe. When I hear his performances of Clementi (or Haydn, Ravel, or any number of other composers), I feel as if I am compelled to truly listen to the piece in question, noting all of its details. There are no distractions coming from the performer, nothing pulls focus from the music and makes me think “that was a daring choice,” or “What is he doing there?” To be sure, McCabe is making many interpretive choices, but the logic is solid to the point that those choices seem unassailable. Rather than seeming random or whimsical, they are simply part of the fabric of the piece. This is the mark of a great musician.

Richard Masters
Previous review: John France

Contents (Scarlatti)
Sonata in G major, K.105
Sonata in G minor, K. 426
Sonata in D minor, K.517
Sonata in D major, K.490
Sonata in F minor, K. 69
Sonata in F major, K. 518
Sonata in E major, K. 28
Sonata in E major, K.215
Sonata in C major, K.133
Sonata in G major, K.259
Sonata in G minor, K.43
Sonata in C major, K.460

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