Piano Concertos of Johann Baptist Cramer – Howard Shelley – Hyperion

by | Jul 8, 2019 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

CRAMER: Piano Concerto No. 4 in C Major, Op. 38; Piano Concerto No. 5 in C minor, Op. 48 – Howard Shelley, piano and conductor/ London Mozart Players – Hyperion CDA68270, 60:52 (5/27/19) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS] ****:

Johann Baptist Cramer (1771-1858) found favor as a brilliant keyboard performer and composer, much admired for the former by no less than Beethoven, who thought him a master technician.  Born in Mannheim, Germany but raised in London, England, Cramer tutored under Clementi, who ingrained in the younger man a love of Haydn, Mozart, and J.S. Bach and son C.P.E. Bach. The admixture of musical styles suffuses Cramer’s own work, mellifluous, fluid, ornamented, vocalized melodies, but not particularly profound and dramatic, as we find in contemporaries Beethoven and Chopin. Howard Shelley (rec. 16-17 July 2018) serves as pianist and conductor and rather relishes the two concertos he delivers, delighting particularly in Cramer’s penchant for terraced dynamics and juicily inventive accents.

The 1804 C Major Concerto follows a pattern of ritornello and sonata form we might find likewise in the violin concertos of Viotti and Paganini. The cheery tune has color help from a quite active flute. The second subject modulates to the dominant, something of a novelty. The music proceeds politely, displaying the kind of technical finesse always attributed to the composer. The string colors in the accompanied passages eschew the violas, whose darker hues contribute only to the tuttis. A transition into A minor catches our attention, posing the possibility of a more passionate affect, but Cramer dwells on the dotted rhythms and parky sentiments. Cramer delights in chains of runs, trills, and roulades, moving up to scalar periods. Cramer always stressed legato in his playing, and so he does equip both Field and Chopin with the model of a singing instrument. While no cadenza shows off Cramer’s sense of improvisation, the piano has a brief solo that serves as a transition to the recapitulation, which features a neat rhythmic shift in which piano and flute share the moment.

Shelley’s solo piano opens the delicately scored rondo, the Romance: Affettuoso second movement. The music, in constant variation, procaeeds as a stately gavotte, with a brief excursion into D Major. A more pungent episode occurs in D minor, although the music-box sonority of the whole remains unruffled. The emphasis on lyrical, legato figuration indeed defines the Cramer style, and the flute provides a fine grounding for the movement’s poised charm. The final movement, Rondo: Allegro offers us a “hunting motif” set in 6/8 in the form of a sonata-rondo – with a solid drone bass – that appealed to Haydn. The play of the keyboard against the orchestral strings and horns provides the rollicking luster for this relatively ambitious writing. Cramer’s harmonic explorations become a fascinating study in themselves, given his transitions into A minor, E-flat Major and minor, and D minor. Cramer wants to return to his tonic C Major, and his surprise ploy involves a solo cadenza, an opportunity for the virtuoso in Cramer to unfold in chromatic, sprightly gestures, but no less legato as his main focus. The sense of humor that reveals itself has much that we no less admire in Mozart, although Cramer’s familiarity with that genius at the time remains dubious.

The 1807 Piano Concerto No. 5 in C minor exudes a pomp and ceremony denied his earlier concerto. The four-note “fate” motif does not project the palpable ferocity we have in Beethoven, but the otherwise bucolic surface of Cramer’s music carries the makings of sturm und drang.  The trumpets and tympani certainly add a weighty dimension to the opening Allegro maestoso. The ritornello tune resounds forcefully while the keyboard part makes its scalar way to lyrical roulades and jeu perle, the second subject set in glowing E-flat Major. Cramer has an interest in Neapolitan harmony, which spices up the chromatic sense of contrast. Through a combination of thirds and sixths and a sojourn into A-flat minor, Cramer manages to suggest moments in Beethoven. Cramer has a penchant for both subito and fermatas, so the dynamic range varies along with sudden key shifts, particularly to modes of G. The music appears to culminate in triumphant C Major, but this moment becomes a ruse of sorts, since the minor mode will close out the first movement.

Set in ternary form, the C Major Larghetto retains the bucolic, “pastoral” affect we hear in the Fourth Concerto. The orchestra opens the procession, and the solo keyboard extends the romance. The music gains more interest and textural variety – enhanced by a
well-wrought flute part – by moving into G Major. In the da capo, the original motif gathers a richly decorative raiment which piano and orchestra share generously. The C minor Rondo a l’Hongroise: Scherzando purports to be colored in Hungarian terms, a highly accented tour de force with clear recollections of the popular last movement in Haydn’s D Major Concerto.  Shelley has plenty to do, what with syncopes and brilliant, steady runs that test his wrist action. Rife with sudden stops and starts, fermatas galore, the music gravitates to pedal points on C, but Cramer likes D minor better. Winds and tympani add a stern militancy to the otherwise jaunty, folk atmosphere. Cramer injects more humor into his mix, with a false recapitulation, now in E-flat Major. Later than sooner, Cramer works his way to what we think will culminate in C Major; but no, the coda will occur in C minor, which Laurence Olivier, in his sly role as General Burgoyne, might have dubbed “a forensic triumph.”

Hats off to pianist-conductor Howard Shelley, who has by no small set of skills kept this often wild and wily music in constant motion, supplying if not depth, a perpetual source of musical wonder. I wonder if a fortepiano, rather than a potent Steinway, might have served this original music even more.

–Gary Lemco