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Johann Baptist CRAMER (1771-1858)
Piano Concerto No.1 in E flat major, Op.10 (c.1792) [28:52]
Piano Concerto No.3 in D major, Op.26 (c.1796) [24:05]
Piano Concerto No.6 in E flat major, Op.51 (c.1812/13) [25:19]
London Mozart Players/Howard Shelley (piano)
rec. 2018, St John the Evangelist, Upper Norwood, London HYPERION CDA68302 [78:18]
There will be few pianists who have not encountered Johann Baptist Cramer’s 86 Études for the piano, Op.84. Whether they retain the popularity of yesteryear is a matter of debate. What is not in contention is Cramer’s massive contribution to piano technique in the first half of the nineteenth century. The Études were part of that revolution. So much so, that Beethoven himself regarded them as ‘the chief basis of all genuine piano playing’.
My first introduction to Cramer’s Piano Concertos was on an old Vox Box production featuring several early romantic concertos. This set included works by Clementi, Field, Ries, Czerny and Hummel. Cramer was represented by his Piano Concerto No.5 in C minor, Op.48. Akiko Sagara was the soloist, and the Luxembourg Radio/Television Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Pierre Cao.
In 2002 Chandos began what promised to be series of Cramer’s piano concertos. Nos. 2, 7, and 8 were released on CHAN 10005 (reviewed here). Howard Shelley was accompanied by the London Mozart Players. The CD was praised for its brilliant pianism, and for attentive and lyrical performances. Unfortunately, the venture collapsed. In 2018, Hyperion assembled the same performers to recommence this scheme. The first volume included the Concerto No.4 in C major, Op.38 and No.5 in C minor, Op.48 (Hyperion CDA68270). It was reviewed for MusicWeb International by David Barker and Marc Rochester. I have not heard that recording. Two years later, we have the present CD. The only outstanding work is the Concerto da Camera (1812). This may not count in this survey
A few words about the composer may be helpful. Johann Baptist Cramer was born in Mannheim on 24 February 1771. The following year, the infant’s parent brought him to London. As a child, he studied violin and piano with his father, and then had formal musical training with C .F. Abel and Muzio Clementi. In 1788, Cramer began to tour extensively as a concert pianist. He was acclaimed throughout Europe. He made his permanent home in London, and shared his time between performance, teaching at the Royal Academy of Music, publishing, and composition. Much of his time was spent in Paris. In 1828, Cramer, Robert Addison, and T. Frederick Beale had set up in London a music-publishing house, J. B. Cramer & Co.
It is interesting that Cramer was self-taught as a composer. Despite this lack of training, he wrote a vast amount of music, including nine piano concertos, more than a hundred piano sonatas and a small amount of chamber music. Johann Baptist Cramer died in London on 16 April 1858.
The liner notes provide the context for Cramer’s piano concertos. Composed between 1792 and 1825, they were devised to showcase his ‘skills in modern piano techniques, notably his prowess for intricate figurations, complex embellishment and legato playing’. This was hardly an original approach to writing music. Other big names in the piano world did the same thing. For example, John Field, Ignaz Moscheles, Daniel Steibelt, Friedrich Kalkbrenner and Jan Ladislav Dussek produced equally attractive and demanding concertos.
Most of Cramer’s Piano Concertos were premiered at his annual benefit concerts in London.
Rather than a detailed discussion of these three concertos, I will give a few general remarks. All three works lie on the cusp between the classical and the romantic. However, much of the music makes a backward glance to Mozart, especially in the concluding rondos. All this music is characterised by grace, elegance and clarity. It has been said Cramer’s music is not as dramatic as Clementi’s, less rich than Dussek’s and less sentimental than Field’s (Grove’s Dictionary). Cramer has achieved a subtle and often sensuous balance between a classical tone and the most advanced techniques of piano playing available at that time. There is little here that anticipates the overblown concertos of the romantic era. It should be noted that the three works on this CD cover a span of some 20 years. It is fair to say that there is not a whole lot of stylistic development. But, to me, that is not a problem: Cramer has created an ideal form, and he continued to use it. That the music is largely conservative in sound, does not mean that it lacks value, interest and enjoyment.
It is redundant to state that the performances by Howard Shelley and the London Mozart Players are superb. Equally superfluous is to note the excellent recording. It is up to Hyperion’s usual high quality.
The extensive liner notes by Professor Jeremy Dibble make essential reading. They are printed in English, French and German. I guess that I am a little disappointed in the cover design for The Classical Piano Concerto series. For me, it presents an image of dullness and pedantry which is the antithesis of the present concertos.
It is good that the Cramer Piano Concerto project is now completed (except the Concerto da Camera) after some 18 years. The listener will enjoy the CD if they enjoy stylish, melodic and technically intriguing music. I have always regarded Johann Baptist Cramer as an honorary Englishman. We should be proud of his achievement in all the musical avenues he explored. Yet, he is absent from the concert halls: his name is lacking from the BBC Proms Archive listings. I would rather hear his music than much of the established repertoire from that era. And that, I dare to say, includes Beethoven. If I want to listen to urbane and sophisticated piano music, I turn to Cramer’s work. Finally, let us hope that one day an enterprising record company will turn its attention to all the piano sonatas.
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