Gino Foti - Clementi: Progressive Sonatinas, Op.36
Gino Foti - Baby Grand Piano
No. 1 in C Major
- 1. Spiritoso (0'59)
- 2. Andante (1'10)
- 3. Vivace (0'57)
No. 2 in G Major
- 4. Allegretto I (1'36)
- 5. Allegretto II (0'56)
- 6. Allegro (1'35)
No. 3 in C Major
- 7. Spiritoso (2'37)
- 8. Un poco adagio (1'10)
- 9. Allegro (1'24)
No. 4 in F Major
- 10. Con spirito (2'20)
- 11. Andante con espressione (1'28)
- 12. Rondo: Allegro vivace (2'00)
No. 5 in G Major
- 13. Presto (2'32)
- 14. Air Suisse: Allegro moderato (1'43)
- 15. Rondo: Allegro di molto (2'28)
No. 6 in D Major
- 16. Allegro con spirito (3'35)
- 17. Rondo: Allegretto spiritoso (2'17)
"They who thoroughly study Clementi, at the same time make themselves acquainted with Mozart, and other composers; but the converse is not the fact." ~ Ludwig van Beethoven
In late 2020, I received an email from a former co-worker who was moving out of the state, and wanted to know if I was interested in buying his wife's baby grand. After telling him that I could barely afford a Fisher-Price 'My First Piano', I inquired about using it to record an album, and he (semi-enthusiastically) agreed. That was the easy part. Now I had to find music that not only could I play convincingly - given that bass guitar is my primary instrument - but that I enjoyed enough to rehearse over and over, before my world record-setting low threshold of boredom kicked in.
After a few days of going through my collection, I finally settled on Muzio Clementi's Six Progressive Sonatinas. Clementi was an Italian-born, English-based virtuoso, as well as composer, conductor, editor, music publisher, pedagogue, and piano manufacturer. Dedicating most of his life to the instrument, he was referred to as "the father of the pianoforte", and was honored by being buried in Westminster Abbey, among other notable artists and British royalty. His 3 Sonatas for Keyboard (Nos. 2, 4, and 6 from Opus 2) first published in 1779, and revised in 1807, are acknowledged as marking a turning point in the instrument's history.
Once I had thoroughly learned the set, the first thing I did was to toss the sheet music aside. I was confident that there must already be dozens - if not hundreds - of recordings by professional pianists, dedicated amateurs, and even current students who had adhered to all the fingerings and performance markings; so my approach for this album was to use the score as a blueprint, adding a few personal touches, akin to the 'Bob Ross method' by placing a "happy little cloud" here, a "big 'ol tree" there - hopefully, with no "happy accidents". Again, keyboards are not my chosen instrument, so there was no one I needed to impress, besides myself.
As I imagined, the real problem with this project was in capturing the performances. Having never recorded a real piano in a studio setting - much less in someone's living room with no acoustic treatment, or professional microphones - I had to settle for a sound that was comparable to listening to someone's recital a few feet away from the stage. Not optimal, but acceptable for this release. Unavoidable problems aside, this project was actually a lot of fun, especially given the grim times it was produced in, and I hope the listener receives even a slight amount of the happiness and enjoyment that I did, while rehearsing and performing this music.
Muzio Clementi first published Opus 36 in 1797, and revised it in 1820. Some of his earlier, shorter, and "easier" sonatas were later classified as sonatinas, including this set. As the title suggests, the seventeen movements progress in complexity and technical demands, making them an excellent instructional method for most piano students, which was the original purpose; but beyond their pedagogical value, they are a collection of charming and lively pieces with graceful melodies, smooth rhythmic transitions, and various contrasts in technique throughout the series, mostly within the standard sonata form of: exposition, development, and recapitulation.
Sonatina No. 1 in C Major, begins with a fifteen measure exposition, with the theme reminding me of an allegro from one of Domenico Scarlatti's sonatas, also in C Major. Since Scarlatti was a major influence of Clementi's, this is not too surprising. The development section briefly switches to C minor, before transitioning back. The lovely second movement, marked andante is in F Major, with a 3/4 time signature, and features broken chords for rhythmic interest. This sonatina concludes with a vivace in 3/8, returning to C Major. The dynamic contrasts in this movement will be a prominent attribute for the remainder of the set.
The second sonatina has an unusual allegretto - allegretto - allegro structure, with the first in G Major, in 2/4 time, extending the exposition to twenty-two measures, featuring sixteenth-note passages for both hands. The second movement is in C Major, in 3/4 time, and introduces dotted rhythms. Most performers tend to play it at a much slower tempo, but I opted to play it in the upper half of its tempo range. The third part, just like the previous sonatina, is in 3/8, and returns to the key signature of G Major. Dynamic contrast is used again, but in a more playful setting than above.
My favorite of the entire set, Sonatina No. 3 begins with a spiritoso in C Major, just like No. 1 - except in 4/4 instead of 2/4. The length of the exposition is twenty-six measures, with the first subject formed from a descending arpeggio, which is inverted during the development section. The second section, in G Major, only has two parts, and the delightful melody calls for cantabile playing, analogous to a smooth singing style, in stark contrast with the pulsating final movement - an allegro in 2/4, that returns to C Major. The technical demands on the player really begin to escalate with this sonatina, as it requires several shadings of expression, scalar runs, trills, and a variety of tempos.
The fourth in the group begins in F major, in 3/4, doubling the exposition length of the first to thirty measures. An expressive andante in B♭ Major, in 2/4, leads to another cut-time piece, a vivacious rondo that makes extensive use of sextuplet figures for both hands. The rondo is built on alternating a principal recurring theme with contrasting episodes, which will also be used in the last two sonatinas.
My second favorite, number 5 returns to G Major, with a thirty-four measure exposition. The running triplets, melodies, and rhythms, played at a presto tempo, make the first movement sound like a precursor to some of Gioachino Rossini's pieces. This is followed by a beautiful air suisse (or swiss air - a song-like instrumental) in allegro moderato tempo, a 3/8 time signature, and in C Major. The third movement rondo is marked allegro di molto, in 2/4, and again features dynamic contrast and lighthearted playing, like No. 2. Parts of it remind me of passages from Niccolò Paganini's sonatas for violin and guitar - which will be written later.
The series ends in D Major and contains only two movements. Once again, the length of the exposition of the first movement is expanded, now at thirty-eight measures. It contains fluid melodic subjects, complex rhythms, and key changes, as well as that bane of Classical piano music - the Alberti bass. The final rondo, this time in 6/8, is marked allegretto spiritoso and continues the combination of contrast in dynamics and playfulness. Both movements also feature passages in thirds, a Clementi trademark.
Side Notes: Clementi v. Mozart
Although he was a notable influence on numerous virtuosos, especially Frédéric Chopin and Ludwig van Beethoven, during Clementi's lifetime, his music was eclipsed by various masters like Franz Joseph Haydn, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - whom he was pitted against in a competition, on Christmas Eve 1781, in Vienna.
In case you are unfamiliar with the story:
Joseph II, then the Holy Roman emperor, was hosting a reception, and decided to entertain his guests with a contest between the two piano masters in a series of performances of their original works, sight-reading, and improvisations... without informing either of them beforehand!
Both had recently arrived in Vienna: Mozart, to pursue his dream of becoming a freelance artist in the imperial city, after the release from his Salzburg post; for Clementi, it was a designated stop, as part of his three-year European tour to promote the recently built Broadwood grand pianos.
In the end, Joseph II used his skills in diplomacy, and declared the contest a hard-fought draw, leaving Mozart bitter, for two reasons: the obvious one, and the fact that the prize money of 100 ducats would also be split.
In a letter to his father (who despised Italian musicians even more than his son), Mozart wrote: "Clementi plays well, as far as execution with the right hand goes. His greatest strength lies in his passages in thirds. Apart from that, he has not a (French violinist, Rodolphe) Kreutzer’s worth of taste or feeling. In short, he is a mere mechanicus (robot)."
Clementi, admitting that Mozart was the better of the two, wrote: "[...] until then, I had never heard anyone play with such spirit and grace."
Curiously, in 1790-1791, Mozart composed the singspiel (literally "sing-play", regarded today as an opera genre), Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), whose overture "borrows" the opening theme to Clementi's Sonata in B♭ Major (Op. 24, No. 2) which was the first piece he had played during their contest. Because of Mozart's recognition and popularity, Clementi felt the need to note in subsequent publications of this sonata, that he had originally written that theme in 1780.