Cramer Piano Concertos Nos 2, 7 & 8
Imagine an early Beethoven piano concerto, but less fiery, less purposeful, more decorative, and that will tell you what to expect of the first of the works on this disc by Johann Baptist Cramer. Beethoven’s junior by a couple of months, Cramer was born in Mannheim but made his career in London, where he was one of the leading figures of the ‘London Pianoforte School’ (with Clementi and Dussek among others) in the early years of the 19th century and a piano teacher of enormous (and still continuing) influence.
Possibly the earliest of these concertos is the most successful because it’s not over-ambitious; Cramer can cope with the scale, and there is vitality to the outer movements and real charm to the Andante slow movement, with a hint of folksong-derived melody so popular at this period. No 7, composed by 1816, has much in common with middle-period Beethoven, and it is not without some power; one is also aware of the sound of early Romanticism in the softer colours and the vein of sentiment, akin to Weber and Hummel. But neither here nor in No 8 (where the folky vein is discernible again) is the slow music much more than charming.
There is a brilliant, sometimes witty finale to No 7, and a fine stormy first movement to No 8 – which, rather in the manner of some of Boccherini’s works (Steve Lindemann, in his admirable booklet note, cites later examples), is cut off in midstream by the Larghetto and resolved by the lengthy finale, a Rondo a l’Espagnola, which takes up some of its material. This last concerto, not previously recorded, dates from the early 1820s.
I am very glad to have heard this CD, which casts a fascinating light on music of the early decades of the 19th century. I have nothing but admiration for Howard Shelley’s playing, which is brilliant and spirited in the quick movements, warm and graceful in the slow. But I do have to add that I believe such works as these fare much better played on instruments of the period, for a modern piano is too sturdy and too aggressive in its sound – especially when recorded rather forward of the orchestra, as it seems to be here – and is apt to obscure the delicacy of the tonal world to which this music really belongs, nudging it towards a larger sonic and aesthetic framework than it can really stand. Excellent, prompt and responsive support from the London Mozart Players.