No.1 in C, WoO32
No.2 in D, WoO33
No.3 in G, WoO34 (The Great National)
No.4 in D, WoO35
Recorded January 26-30 2014 at Grosser Saal, Stiftung Mozarteum, Salzburg, Austria
Reviewed by: Robert Matthew-Walker
Reviewed: March 2017
CD No: SONY CLASSICAL
88985305392 (2 CDs)
Duration: 1 hour 46 minutes
Apart from one appalling mistake by Sony, this is a brilliant issue of music that, for no defendable reason, is never heard in the concert hall, but which every self-respecting music-lover should hear. Muzio Clementi was a vastly more original and imaginative composer than many people realise, and although there have been good recordings of his orchestral music prior to this release, they have been few in number; this one does his wonderful music full justice. The fact remains that the neglect of Clementi’s orchestral music has nothing to do with its inherent quality, but much to do with – so it appears – his inner character.
Clementi was a multi-gifted musician. He was born in Rome in 1752, and came to live, study and work from the age of fourteen in Dorset, later in London, and took British nationality. His gifts were many and wide-ranging – in business, teaching and the arts. As a professor of the piano, the list of his pupils alone would ensure his eminence in musical history – amongst them were J. B. Cramer, John Field, Friedrich Kalkbrenner, Meyerbeer and Ignaz Moscheles – indeed, it is difficult to imagine the development of pianism and piano music in Britain and in Northern Europe at the dawn of the 19th-century without Clementi’s profound influence.
His piano lessons led to two important developments: his own compositions for the instrument, of which his solo pieces were many and varied, which laid the foundations for a number of early developments in the first decades of the burgeoning Romantic movement and which – even today – teachers find to be an invaluable resource, and his appreciation that for any music to reach a wide market, it has to be published.
Clementi bought an established if small music-publishing business in London in the years following Haydn’s visits (which had made classical music the height of fashion) and proceeded to publish his own and other composers’ works. Any musician could have done this, but the fact that Clementi was a greatly-gifted creator ensured the survival of his company and the dissemination of his work. It is interesting that Cramer also followed Clementi into music publishing – there was money to be made at a time when art was considered a mark of civilised living.
But – apart from the calls on his time that such multitudinous activities made – Clementi was very fastidious; naturally creative, he knew that in the last analysis his music was not of the quality of the best of Haydn or Beethoven – even though it did not fall far short, and the latter rated him very highly. The general belief today from Clementi’s admirers is that he was too self-critical in terms of his large-scale works – yet it remains more than curious that a composer who lived to be eighty, known and respected across Europe, should have kept his orchestral works unpublished, including these four Symphonies.
Indeed, we simply don’t know when they were written, nor do we know how many Symphonies Clementi composed – probably quite a few more than those that have survived – and a severe practical reason for their neglect is that the manuscripts of several is split between London and the Library of Congress in Washington – not complete works, but individual movements from them – making their collation difficult and time-consuming.
One has to state something of the background to this music because its relative unfamiliarity may lead many music-lovers to conclude that it is probably no more than quite good, which would be a big mistake. If anything can be done to ensure its rehabilitation, it is this set of records.
It has fallen to the Mozarteumorchester Salzburg – and a very gifted British conductor – to give us this exceptional release. These four Symphonies are (for the time) large-scale, each approaching half-an-hour; they are all in four movements, and each begins with a slow introduction.
Thus far, thus late-Haydnesque, but Haydn himself would surely have been amused, intrigued and moved by Clementi’s unique use of what one might term conventional formulae in an unusual manner – nor are such events surprises for surprises’ sake: there is always a genuine musical impetus for the composer’s direction of the onward flow of his music.
In the First Symphony, for example, Clementi’s control of pulse is admirable – a pupil, Ludwig Berger, became one of Mendelssohn’s teachers, and it is the later master whose approach to the control of fast music is such a feature is often presaged in Clementi’s outer movements. The third-movement Minuet of this Symphony is extraordinarily natural in its one-in-a-bar pulsation.
The Second Symphony covers a wider range of emotional expression, and in Clementi’s deft use of the orchestra, here is a composer who knows at all times exactly what he is doing, and why.
The subtitle of the Third Symphony, ‘The Great National’, refers to the use of the British National Anthem, but some listeners may feel the opening three notes allude to the ringing of familiar bell changes – better-known to Clementi’s contemporaries than us. Whilst there is something intriguing in basing the Symphony on the Anthem of the composer’s adopted country, he was not indulging in a game of spot-the-tune, for the music has much creative originality – not least in a striking command of orchestration.
The work is fully the equal of its two predecessors, but it is the Fourth Symphony that is consistently the finest work, the slow movement being amongst the most original of its era, foreshadowing both Brahms and Bruckner.
However, the manufacturing process here makes nonsense of it. Despite the four movements being correctly sequenced in the accompanying booklet, the position of the slow movement and the Minuet has been reversed on the disc: we get the Minuet first – an absolute shocker of a mistake which implies that no-one bothered to listen properly before the disc went into manufacture. It is possible of course to sequence one’s equipment to correct the error, but potential listeners should be forewarned.
This disaster to one side (if compromising the five stars I would have given), this release is distinguished by excellent and stylish playing and the recording quality is equally fine.