Clementi Complete Piano Sonatas, Vol 1
Reviewing a disc of early Clementi sonatas by Susan Alexander-Max for Naxos's complete cycle (1/08), I remarked that these delicate works of the 1760s, '70s and '80s probably sounded best on the fortepiano. Well, let me take that back straightaway, for listening to this opener in Howard Shelley's complete cycle, recorded on a pristine-sounding modern piano, it is hard to imagine anyone else ever making them sound better. If 17 sonatas on two discs (offered at the price of one) makes one suspect that they will be slight stuff, so they are in some ways, yet not without a distinct character of their own and not without signs of a rapid personal development from the Alberti-style treble-and-bass sonatinas of Op 1, through what sounds like a delighted discovery of double thirds and octaves in Op 2, to a foretaste of Beethoven's more organic use of pianistic brilliance in Opp 7 and 8.
Shelley reveals all this by treating each and every one of these works with the utmost respect, his constant attention to the subtlest details of touch and phrasing meaning not only that things are never allowed to descend into the routine, but that he is more than able to respond to those moments when Clementi really does find a vein of poetry. They are not as rare as you might think; the Andante cantabile of Op 8 No 1 is a gem, the excellent Op 7 No 3 is strongly expressive throughout, and even Op 1 has some sensitive shadings. Shelley realises them all while also coping coolly with the more finger-breaking exhibitions of virtuosity. That Naxos disc had me recalling Mozart's famous “mechanicus” jibe. Unworthy thought! Shelley's performances, which seem well capable of achieving definitive status, make you wonder if Mozart was hiding some genuine discomfort.