CLEMENTI: Early Piano Sonatas (Susan Alexander-Max) (Naxos: 8.555808)
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Muzio Clementi (1752-1832)
Muzio Clementi was born in Rome in 1752, the son of a silversmith. By the age of thirteen he had become proficient enough as a musician to be employed as an organist at the Church of S. Lorenzo in Damaso and to attract the attention of an English visitor, Peter Beckford, cousin of William Beckford, the author of the Gothic novel Vathek and builder of the remarkable folly Fonthill Abbey. Peter Beckford, as he himself claimed, bought Clementi from his father for a period of seven years, during which the boy lived at Beckfords estate in Dorset, perfecting his ability as a keyboard player and, presumably, his general education. In 1774 Clementi moved to London where he began to take part in professional concert life as a composer and performer, playing his own sonatas, some of which were published at this time, and directing performances from the keyboard at the Italian opera.
Clementis success as a performer persuaded him to travel. In 1780 he played for Queen Marie Antoinette in France and early in 1782 performed for her brother, the Emperor Joseph II, in Vienna. Mozart met Clementi in January, when they were both summoned to play for the Emperor. Mozart had a poor opinion of Clementis musical taste and feeling, but grudgingly admitted his technical ability in right-hand playing of passages in thirds, otherwise dismissing him as a mere mechanicus. It should be added that Mozart was often disparaging about the abilities of his contemporaries, as he was of Clementi again on a later occasion.
In 1785 Clementi returned to England, winning a reputation for himself there as a performer and teacher, although as a composer he was eclipsed in the 1790s by the presence in London of Haydn. It was in these years that he involved himself in piano manufacture and music publishing in London, first with Longman & Broderip and from 1798, after the firms bankruptcy, with Longman, and others. In the earlier years of the nineteenth century he travelled abroad in the interests of the business, accompanied at first by his pupil John Field, who served as a demonstrator of Clementis wares and later left a somewhat prejudiced account of his experiences after he parted company with Clementi in Russia.
From 1810 Clementi was again in England, where he was much respected, not least for his teaching compositions, his Introduction to the Art of Playing the Piano Forte of 1801, revised in 1826, and the famous Gradus ad Parnassum, completed and published in the latter year. He retired from business in 1830, settling first in Lichfield and then in Evesham, where he died in 1832, to be buried in Westminster Abbey. His legacy to pianists was a significant one, both through his compositions and his teaching, an introduction to a new virtuosity and exploration of the possibilities of a newly developed instrument in a society that had changed greatly since his own childhood in Italy.
Clementis early keyboard sonatas extend from the simplest galant writing to the complex passion of Romantic piano composition. His first popularity stemmed in part from the Sonatas, Op. 2, first published about 1779. Encouraged by his London successes, in 1780 he embarked on a continental tour, during which he produced about 26 sonatas, Opp. 5 - 13, and some of his most memorable music dates from this period.
The sonata from his middle period, Op. 13 No. 6 in F minor (1785) has the dynamic extremes, propulsive rhythms, and octave melodies that we associate with the young Beethoven, ten years later. Clementi, still interested in counterpoint, wrote compositions showing two-part running figurations, which he would have learned when studying Scarlatti during his stay in Dorset.
The variety in his early music is quite astonishing. The first Sonata in G major, WO14, is a very early work, which shows the influence of the composers he had been studying. It only survives in autograph, written as early as 1768, when Clementi was sixteen, but never published. In the Sonata in A major,
Op. 2, No. 4, composed in 1779, there is a profusely decorated melodic style of writing which anticipates nineteenth century piano music. His Op. 8 Sonatas were published in Lyon, which he visited in 1782.
Clementis early sonatas are possibly his greatest compositional achievement. Although he would continue to develop, these early works establish a musical language that was futuristic. His interest in the cantabile style of playing is a foretaste of nineteenth century romantic style, and this he taught to his pupils, amongst them professional performers such as J. B. Cramer, John Field and Kalkbrenner.
Although Clementi lived in England for most of his life and is associated with the English piano, he made several extended visits to the Continent. The first of these journeys was in the 1780s. When travelling, he would become better acquainted with the piano, and would be introduced to the Viennese piano, (having grown up with the harpsichord). Indeed, most of the sonatas here included were composed when Clementi was in Europe. Therefore, for this recording I have chosen to use the reproduction piano after Michael Rosenberger, c.1798, made by Derek Adlam. It has the qualities inherent to the early Viennese piano, for example different tone qualities for the different registers of the piano: the light, flute-like treble, the singing tenor register, and the growling and more robust bass. Its delicacy and grace satisfy the emotional eloquence of Clementis early sonatas, just as it would with the work of his Viennese contemporaries, Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven.