Howard Shelley

Clementi: The Complete Piano Sonatas, Vol. 3

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Veteran British pianist Howard Shelley has undertaken a series covering all of Muzio Clementi's more than 100 keyboard sonatas, ultimately to include six double-disc releases (although they're priced as single discs). This is the third in the series, and if you're after just one album this collection from the middle of Clementi's career offers a fair representation of his strengths. Clementi's nearly two centuries of bad press began with Mozart's remark, reproduced in Leon Plantinga's notes, that Clementi's playing had "an atrocious chopping effect." Plantinga tends to oversell Clementi a bit; the first movement of the Piano Sonata in F major, Op. 13/5, has little in common with the finale of Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111, beyond a few very simple intervals in its main theme. But the sonatas here, from the middle and late 1780s, embody the strengths claimed by Plantinga and others for Clementi's keyboard sonatas: some of them anticipate Beethoven, while others are exemplary works for students of modest abilities. These trends appear in Clementi's career in reverse chronological order; he came to London as a virtuoso and settled in as a successful composer of music for the large market of young women pianists. The Op. 13 sonatas on the first disc exemplify the first phase; the tightly constructed outer movements, with running figures economically derived from a fairly restricted stock of motivic ideas, aren't far from Beethoven's Op. 2 sonatas, and the chromaticism of the slow movement breathes a genuine spirit of adventure. The Op. 23 and Op. 24 sonatas on the second disc (two of them with only two movements, one of them marked Allegro con vivacità) are simpler pieces that still make ideal student works. Shelley, playing a modern piano, reins in his instrument almost to fortepiano dimensions and shifts gears elegantly between the two main idioms. His playing is not brightly colored or expressive, but is sharply detailed, and the proportions of the modest movement in the Op. 23 and Op. 24 sets are perfect. This is, in short, not only recommended for those following Shelley's series but for anyone in search of a single Clementi disc.

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