There is not a single serious piano student on earth who hasn't had, at some point in his/her formal course of study, to learn from Muzio Clementi's Six Progressive Piano Sonatinas Op. 36. However, when it comes to pieces designed with pedagogical purposes in mind, familiarity can breed contempt, and record companies have not exactly made the recording of Clementi's very extensive keyboard output a priority. To be sure, good recordings have been made, namely by pianists such as Nikolai Demidenko, Tanya Bannister, Maria Tipo, and a few others. But Clementi's work covers a wide and vastly important span of musical history -- his output in piano sonatas alone runs concurrently with Ludwig van Beethoven's entire lifetime, and Clementi's music reflects all of the changes that took place in the music around him. A comprehensive survey is sorely needed, and that is what Brilliant Classics promises to bring us in the three-disc Clementi: The Complete Sonatas Vol. 1 played on a modern copy of a 1790 Dulcken fortepiano by Clementi scholar Costantino Mastroprimiano.
Subtitled "The Viennese Sonatas," this collection has as its centerpiece the 12 sonatas Op. 7-10 that Clementi composed while on tour in Vienna between December 1781 and May 1782, plus a number of other pieces he wrote during or around that time. The Sonata, Op. 11, is known from an autograph and an unauthorized early print of its Toccata only, which was a well-known piece in its day. This set also includes the two Sonatas, Op. 24, and the revision of Sonata, Op. 24/2, published as Op. 41/1. Intelligently, Mastroprimiano selects shorter pieces to break up the parade of sonatas, such as Clementi's amusing simulations within the styles of Vanhal and Mozart from his Musical Characteristics, Op. 19 -- composers he would have known in Vienna -- and a stray Rondo in B flat, perhaps composed for a sonata that no longer survives.
That first Viennese tour was a disappointing one for Clementi, and it included a surprise "cutting contest" between Clementi and 16-year old local hotshot Wolfgang Mozart, orchestrated by Joseph II and Marie Antoinette. Clementi was at a distinct disadvantage; he was not familiar with the keyboard instruments favored at the Viennese court and his style of composition, nurtured in England, proved incomprehensible to the Royals in Vienna. That was because Clementi's music was 20 years or more ahead of its time; these sonatas are resplendent in abrupt stops in the midst of fiery passagework, violent contrasts, non-harmonic passing tones, and other effects more readily associated with early romanticism. Clementi's innovations were not lost on Beethoven, who once described Clementi's sonatas as "the most beautiful of compositions and the most pianistic of all."
You'll seldom hear fortepiano playing as crisp and intense as Mastroprimiano's; his tempos are at times hair-raisingly fast and dazzling, when he stops on a dime you'll gasp, and his understanding of Clementi's phrase lengths, gentle rubato, and tempi is absolute in each and every sonata. The instrument used has a tart, sassy sound in the top and is colorful and rich near the bottom, a gorgeous tone quality for Clementi. Even though this Brilliant Classics set is so long -- almost 200 minutes -- it is likewise so listenable that it isn't necessary to parcel it out into short sections so that you don't lose your way in so many short works. It seems difficult, if not impossible, to avoid offering a top recommendation for Brilliant Classics' Clementi: The Complete Sonatas Vol. 1; it is everything it should be and better, not to mention a major contribution to the recorded repertory and worth well more than the modest asking price.