Susan Alexander-Max

Clementi: Early Piano Sonatas, Vol. 2

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Muzio Clementi's piano works, known to student musicians today nearly as well as they were in his own time, spanned several decades. Both Haydn and Beethoven, if not Mozart, admired him, and his influence on Beethoven is obvious. The exact nature of that influence, however, can be hard for the general listener to pin down, since the chronology of Clementi's music is unfamiliar (and opus numbers are not a reliable guide). This disc by American-British fortepianist Susan Alexander-Max helps address this difficulty; it is one of a series by the artist that focuses on Clementi's early sonatas and thus on the music by Clementi that the young Beethoven would have heard. The five three-movement sonatas here date from the early 1780s and attained wide publication in the years after they were written; they are thus works the teenage Beethoven would very likely have known well. And indeed, even if Clementi's forms are entirely more conventional than those of Beethoven or even Haydn, the pianism of a work as late as the "Moonlight" Sonata seems less radically individual after one hears this music. Clementi was a virtuoso, eclipsed by Mozart at the height of his fame, but popular across the continent, and he wrote music on which he could display the capabilities of the piano, an instrument that for his audiences was just a few years old. The slow movements of the Piano Sonata in E flat major, Op. 11, and the Piano Sonata in G minor, Op. 7/3, emphasize the new instrument's ability to produce songlike smoothness of articulation, and the finales, especially, offer exciting rides through octave scales and sforzandos carefully placed for maximum effect. Alexander-Max is one of a new breed of fortepianists who use the instrument not to tone down the effects that would be achieved on a modern grand but to ramp up the music's expressivity, and she is convincing indeed in this repertory. She writes in her own booklet notes that "[t]he secret with all of these sonatas, and the music of this period, is to make the dynamic contrasts sound as great as possible, to make a fortissimo seem the loudest possible and the pianissimos seem a colorful whisper." One need not agree with her generalization (which does not work for the J.C. Bach-to-Mozart strain) in order to applaud her feel for Clementi's music and hope she will influence other pianists to give this underrated composer the guts his music needs. The London church ambiance gives her playing a redundant resonance; a space resembling the London drawing rooms in which Clementi was trained would have suited her aims better.

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