CLEMENTI Symphonies Nos 1 - 4
Muzio Clementi did his posthumous reputation no favours by turning out reams of autopilot sonatinas for schoolroom use. Mozart’s withering put-down (‘a mere mechanicus’) after their celebrated keyboard contest didn’t help, either. Yet many of his later sonatas, especially, are full of individual, sometimes moving music. There’s plenty to intrigue and delight, too, in these four symphonies composed for large orchestra (including trombones) during the first quarter of the 19th century and performed throughout Europe. After a concert by the London Philharmonic Society in March 1824, the Morning Chronicle wrote that one of Clementi’s symphonies (we do not know which) ‘charmed all lovers of beautiful melody and scientific contrivance’. The use of ‘God save the King’ in The Great National Symphony, No 3, made it something of a popular hit. Yet none of the symphonies seems to have reached a form that satisfied the inveterate reviser in Clementi. Alfredo Casella edited Nos 1 and 2 in the 1930s; but it was not until the late 1970s that pianist-musicologist Pietro Spada made a publishable edition of all four symphonies, drawing on not-quite-complete manuscripts scattered between the British Museum and Washington’s Library of Congress.
The Italian-born Englishman was not a natural creator of vocally inspired melody. Pace the Morning Chronicle, memorable tunes are at a premium. But with a nod to late Haydn (the pastoral Andante of No 2 sounds like a paraphrase of Haydn’s Miracle, No 96) and early Beethoven, Clementi’s music fascinates with its contrapuntal and harmonic inventiveness (the Morning Chronicle’s ‘scientific contrivance’), and rich, colourful orchestration. At times – I’m thinking especially of the variations-in-search-of-a-theme in No 3, where the national anthem emerges by stealth – Clementi can drench his innocuous material in grandiloquent rhetoric. But vivid contrasts of texture and colour usually save the day.
Best of the symphonies, I think, is No 4, beginning with nebulous chromatic slow introduction and then developing the fleet, featherweight themes of the Allegro with contrapuntal virtuosity. The Andante cantabile puts a Romantic gloss on a gracious, Haydnesque theme, while the third movement, somewhere between a minuet and a scherzo, is a darkly furtive piece in D minor, full of disquieting rhythmic dislocations. At least it should come third; it’s placed second here, contradicting both the published score and the booklet track-listing. (Sony is aware of this error and has corrected it for future pressings.)
Sony’s booklet-note, too, is inadequate, long on general background and speculation, woefully short on specific information about the music. These gripes aside, I enjoyed unreservedly the performances by the Salzburgers under their British music director. Clementi’s symphonies were well enough served by Claudio Scimone’s late-1970s recording with the Philharmonia (recently reissued on Apex). But this new recording scores consistently in polish, clarity of texture (crucial in Clementi’s frequent fugal escapades) and sheer character. Bolton brings out both the opera buffa sparkle and the dramatic surprises of the Allegros, gives a lively kick to the rhythms in the minuet-scherzos (I loved, too, the woodwind’s gentle flexibility in the lilting Trio of No 2), and combines affectionate phrasing with a sense of forward motion in the Andantes. The superlative Salzburg wind section relish all the opportunities that come their way. In sum, a new benchmark for these works, warmly recommended to anyone who fancies investigating the Beethoven-Schubert symphonic hinterland.