Clementi Piano Sonatas, Vol 6

While Clementi may lack the depth of Haydn or Mozart, this is a stunning series

Author: 
Lindsay Kemp

Clementi Piano Sonatas, Vol 6

Praise has been plentiful for Howard Shelley’s Clementi piano sonata cycle, and rightly so. This must be one of the most handsome of all recent homages to a lesser-known composer, with nothing about the performances, recording quality or presentation falling short of first-class. And while it would be hard to imagine many choosing Clementi for depth over Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven, anyone familiar with the piano music of those composers will find it fascinating to find Clementi going finger-to-finger with them in skill, creative exuberance and innovation; his influence on Beethoven’s muscular keyboard style, in particular, is plain to hear.

The six sonatas in this final volume are from sets published in 1802 and 1821, though both are thought actually to date from the early 1800s. Op 40 shows the composer in experimental mood – No 1 has a sequence of two-part canons in place of a Scherzo, No 2 consists of two sonata movements, each with a substantial slow introduction – but while the usual mix of brilliance and melodic grace is on show, there is undoubtedly some note-spinning going on. Op 50 touches the emotions more pressingly, above all in the urgently eloquent No 3 in G minor, the best known of Clementi’s sonatas for its romantic subtitle, “Didone abbandonata”. The D minor No 2 is also moodily expressive, however, while No 1 has impressive grandeur and an athletic finale.

As mentioned before, Shelley is a perfect advocate for this music, the limpidness of his playing being allied to utter sensitivity of dynamic and phrasing. If one of this cycle’s abiding impressions has been of a gifted composer with a natural flair for the piano but inconsistently firing inspiration, then another must be of an outstanding performer offering him the very best of his considerable musicianship and understanding at every turn. A heartening achievement on all counts.

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