Clementi was a prolific composer for the piano, and as with a lot of prolific composers his output is variable. At its best, his work ranks amongst the finest music of his time; at its worst, it is best avoided. Small wonder, then, that there are a handful of sonatas which regularly appear on compilations of Clementi’s sonatas, and in this reissued disc, Peter Katin offers his readings of some of the more well-known early works.
By far the most rewarding feature of this disc is the playing. Always thoughtful in his delivery and phrasing, Katin repays careful listening. At times, his interpretations are surprising. So often, it seems, modern performers seem to labour under the perception of Clementi the touring virtuoso: the faster movements dazzle with the complexity of the execution. But in Katin’s hands, Clementi becomes a superb lyricist. Even the moody, almost turbulent G minor Sonata from the Op. 7 set – surely one of the composer’s most subtle and sophisticated works – acquires a wistful dignity in this performance. Where most pianists make a dramatic gesture with the double octaves and semiquaver runs, Katin is almost coy. In the slow movements, the poise and elegance of the interpretation is rarely far from the surface; and many a phrase is charmingly turned.
What is most attractive, too, is the way in which Katin manages to capture an individual character for each of the sonatas. For instance, the D major Sonata from Op.25, which follows the G minor work, as a world away in terms of articulation and touch, and the effect is quite startling. A similar observation could be made about the studied distinction in sound between the opening F sharp minor Sonata (op. 25 No. 5) and the famous B flat Sonata from Op. 24, which Clementi claimed to have played in the celebrated contest with Mozart in 1782. Here again, Katin challenges expectation by daring to perform the outer movements much more sedately than one is used to. In short, then the programme is carefully chosen and diligently performed.
The problem with this disc lies in the instrument. Granted, playing this music on a Clementi square of 1832 allows us to hear the sonatas in a new light. But, to be brutally honest, the instrument looks better than it sounds. The best register is the tenor, which is clear enough and neatly voiced, but the top octave used in these pieces is awful (Although this is a six-octave piano, the repertoire recorded here pre-dates the instrument by some 40 years, and therefore the highest octave of the compass is not used at all). There appears to be a problem with distortion in the wire of several of the notes, with the effect that the tuning is most unsatisfactory. There are also several notes where the action makes an unpleasant click; all very distracting. One could go on.
This is a great pity, because Katin’s performances are worth hearing. And it would be a real delight if the instrument reflected the quality of Katin’s musicianship. In a way , then, this disc curiously reflects Clementi: a lot that’s good, but some rather unfortunate aspects.
[note from Divine Art: as ever, we appreciate the opinions of the reviewer who obviously has issues with the piano! The instrument did not seem to bother the other reviewers, especially from BBC Music who voted this one of the best CDs of 1994 on first release…..]