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Johann Baptist CRAMER (1771-1858)
Piano Concerto No.4 in C, Op.38 [29:16]
Piano Concerto No.5 in C minor, Op.48 [31:36]
London Mozart Players / Howard Shelley (piano)
rec. 2018, St John the Evangelist, Upper Norwood, London
HYPERION CDA68270 [60:52]

Hyperion’s “Romantic Piano Concerto” series has been running since the early 1990s, has now reached volume 79 and is still counting. A combination of rare repertory and excellent performances have made this a must-have collection for pianophiles although, sad to relate, I’m not sure it has thrown up from the vast reserve of forgotten piano concertos it has unearthed anything which has wormed its way into the wider concert repertory. But we have long since resigned ourselves to the fact that there are two different audiences for classical music – one which attends the concert hall and feels that adventurous repertory is confined to contemporary music, and the other which gets most of musical fix from recordings and is eager to explore avenues on which no concert-promoter would ever risk any kind of financial outlay. In no area of the repertory is that division between public presentation and private perusal more marked than in late 18th century/early 19th century music – what some refer to as the “Classical Era”. For the concert-goer, that repertory is almost exclusively represented by Haydn, Mozart and early Beethoven. Yet this was one of the most fruitful periods of musical history to which literally thousands of composers contributed, and accepted musical genres – notably the symphony, string quartet and piano concerto – were perfected. So it is perhaps surprising that it was only in 2014 that Hyperion launched its “Classical Piano Concerto” series. Although it is not labelled as such, this recording of two concertos by Johann Baptist Cramer is the sixth in that series.

Cramer was one of the many composer-pianists who rose to prominence in the heady atmosphere of concertized music in the London of the early 1800s, and his nine piano concertos were primarily vehicles to display his own pianistic prowess; which, according to Jeremy Dribble’s booklet notes, included “intricate figurations, complex embellishments and legato playing”. In the later years of the 19th century, such virtuoso display became the sole raison d'Ítre for the piano concerto, but at the start of the century, musical integrity and elegance still took precedence, and these are very much the features of the two concertos Howard Shelley performs here.

While the principal themes of the Fourth Concerto’s first movement have a Mozartian feel, even to the casual listener the charming opening could never be mistaken for Mozart - it has a robustness and textural fussiness all of its own. Shelley brings out much detail from the London Mozart Players with impeccable clarity and fine balance. He launches into the flowery piano entry with great gusto, showering the orchestral support with cascades of notes which seem to flitter hither and thither across the whole range of the keyboard. After a time, however, one is conscious of a certain amount of filling out of rather slight material with filigree piano writing. Shelley manages to keep any suspicions of limited invention at bay through some good pacing and most particularly some dramatic handling of dynamics. It always sounds interesting and attractive, even if it does not always bear too close scrutiny.

If the first movement had a Mozartian flavour, the second movement seems more akin to the slow movement of a Beethoven concerto. But again even the most casual listener could never confuse the two, for where Beethoven might impress with the originality of his musical thought, Cramer relies on a series of pianistic gestures which Shelley beautifully highlights in his elegant and relaxed approach. Again, he is a master of drawing detail from the orchestra, and his shaping of the phrases achieves maximum effect in this leisurely but purposefully-directed music.

The playful theme and hunting-horn calls of the 3rd movement remind us of the third of that triumvirate of dominant Classical composers – Haydn – but Cramer’s orchestration is too heavy and his piano writing too fulsome for any confusion to arise. In short, while we might recognise certain superficial stylistic connections with his contemporaries, Cramer reveals himself in this Concerto to be very much his own man, and Shelley has a clear empathy for what makes Cramer special and worthy of attention, beyond mere historical curiosity. This is a delightful work, beautifully presented in a clear, thoughtful and intelligent manner.

The Fifth Concerto dates from 1807 and, as the key implies, is an altogether more serious work. It includes, unlike the fourth concerto, parts for trumpets and drums and gives off an impression of being a much more forward-looking work – perhaps one which might not have been out of place in the “Romantic Piano Concerto” series. Certainly the second theme of the opening orchestral ritornello has a very romantic lilt, but when the piano enters it does so in a mood of high drama, with stirring chords and jagged rhythms as well as several dramatic pauses. This is certainly a concerto very much in the Beethoven mould, with an epically–proportioned first movement.

The stately second movement includes some delightful orchestral scoring, while the principal theme has more than a hint of an English hymn about it. Shelley takes this “larghetto” very slowly indeed, but in doing so he exposes the enchanting writing both for orchestra and piano which so distinguishes Cramer’s style as well as relishing the wonderful spaciousness of the main theme.

While the theme of the third movement is a jaunty Hungarian-Style dance, and we get plenty of rustic dance effects including a drone bass, the music is undeniably serious. Here is a composer showing off his virtuosity but maintaining a serious mien, and Shelley’s sparkling pianism and musical integrity comfortably combine these seemingly disparate musical elements. With delightful playing from the London Mozart Players and a most comfortable recorded sound, armchair listeners will find much to delight them here.

Marc Rochester

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