Clementi: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 3: Opp 13, 20, 23 & 24

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LABELS: Hyperion
WORKS: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 3: Opp 13, 20, 23 & 24
PERFORMER: Howard Shelley (piano)


Clementi’s reputation suffered for over 200 years from Mozart’s caustic criticisms of him. After their ‘piano contest’ in Vienna, entertainment for Emperor Joseph II’s guests, Mozart grudgingly praised Clementi’s facility in playing thirds, but without ‘taste or feeling – simply a mechanicus’. Again, two years later, Clementi ‘is a charlatan … he writes “Presto” or even “Prestissimo” and plays Allegro’. Shelley’s third volume (of six projected) makes abundantly clear that Clementi at best was an outstanding composer. Op. 13 No. 4 for instance is remarkably taut, its opening movement based on a single musical idea developed on an almost Beethovenian scale. The slow movement of Op. 13 No. 6, too, is striking, its eerie opening exploring unpredictable harmonic directions, while the Presto finale includes rich, quasi-three-handed textures. 

A contemporary account of Clementi’s own playing, far removed from Mozart’s damning comments, describes "…inimitable rapture… continual swelling and receding… impossible to express on paper," qualities which Shelley matches wholeheartedly. He tempers the virtuoso finger-dexterity of the ‘mechanicus’ with sensitive expressiveness, including moments of wonderfully luminous half-pedalling, and meticulous balance to expose inner motifs. He’s well served by lively and immediate recording.


Clementi’s later sonatas reflect their purpose as music for his pupils, for London musical soirées. Some are relatively easy, for young ladies who had practised their scales. If they fail to develop the pre-Romantic promise of the earlier pieces, they are nonetheless brim-full of charm. George Pratt