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Johann (John) Baptist CRAMER (1771-1858)
Piano Concerto No.4 in C, Op.38 (1804) [29:16]
Piano Concerto No.5 in c minor, Op.48 (1807) [31:36]
Howard Shelley (piano)
London Mozart Players
rec. 16-17 July 2018, St John the Evangelist, Upper Norwood, London. DDD.
Reviewed as 24/96 download with pdf booklet from hyperion-records.co.uk.
HYPERION CDA68270 [60:52]

With so much tempting new material being released every month, not least from Hyperion, I had passed this by until I reviewed another Hyperion recording on which Cramer’s music features: The Jupiter Project brings chamber-scale reductions for piano, flute, violin and cello of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.21, Symphony No.41 (Jupiter) and the overtures to Die Zauberflöte and Figaro (CDA68234). My review of the 24/96 download, pending as I write, will probably have appeared by the time that you read this.

That recording includes Cramer’s arrangement of Piano Concerto No.21 which I enjoyed so much that, although I had reservations about the Jupiter Symphony in scaled-down garb, I thought the album worth obtaining for the sake of the concerto. That comes in a recording by David Owen Norris and his partners that I enjoyed as much as the recent Chandos release of Nos. 20 and 21 from Jean-Efflam Bavouzet and the Manchester Camerata (CHAN20083 – review).

There are, in fact, two arrangements by Cramer of the Mozart concerto, one made in London in 1827, the other in Munich in 1836. Downloaders receive both on a 108-minute album, while those who purchase the disc can download the second recording free of charge.

Johann Baptist Cramer was brought to London as a child by his violinist father who, like so many others, found fame and fortune in the burgeoning capital. A pupil (briefly) of Clementi, a friend of Haydn and an acquaintance of Beethoven, he lived most of his life in England, where he usually chose to call himself John. The publishing house of Cramer, still going strong, was founded by him and he was Master of the King’s Music for eleven years until his death.

The two concertos on the new recording and the three others on Howard Shelley’s earlier recording for Chandos – details below – present him as a largely conservative composer, more akin to Haydn and Mozart than to the Beethoven of 1804 and 1807, but his music is very well crafted and wholly enjoyable. I don’t wish to give the impression that it’s staid, however, just slightly less ground-breaking than that of several of his contemporaries.

The Jupiter Project was recorded using a Broadwood piano of 1826, its rather drier sound capturing the music as it would have been heard in a Georgian drawing room. Howard Shelley uses a modern Steinway instrument for the new recording and, enjoyable as I found it overall, I believe that a fortepiano or an early pianoforte would have increased my enjoyment. That must be taken as a very minor consideration, however, especially as Shelley's touch often sounds close to that of an early piano.

This is, in fact, the only recording of Concerto No.4 in the catalogue, but I can’t imagine it being more effectively performed all round or better recorded, especially in 24/96 format, or presented. Jeremy Dibble’s notes, as is usually the case with Hyperion, are an important part of the deal. Nor will even the 24-bit version break the bank, at £12. (16-bit and mp3 for £7.99. The CD retails for around £12.75, but with as much as £17.45 being asked by one dealer).

While there is another recording of No.5, it comes from an elderly Vox recording, with a soloist and orchestra not in the top flight and no match for Howard Shelley and the London Mozart Players. We used to have to rely on these Vox recordings for much of the out-of-the-way piano concerto repertoire. The Cramer can be obtained on an inexpensive 2-CD Vox set (CDX5111) or in a 40-CD Brilliant Classics set (95300). Stuart Sillitoe enjoyed every minute of hearing the box – review – but it’s to the new Hyperion that you should now turn. It could be well worth downloading and dipping into the Brilliant box, however: Presto are offering the 21 hours of music on it for just £9.75 in lossless sound (even less in mp3).

Subscribers to the invaluable Naxos Music Library will find it in various formats there, including the reissue of the Vox Turnabout LP where it was coupled with music by Hummel.  The chief gain from hearing the Hyperion, aside from the superior pianism of Shelley, comes in the way in which the slow movement larghetto is allowed more space to develop.  I have to admit, however, that, heard on their own without direct comparison, Akiko Sagara, the Luxembourg Radio Orchestra and Pierre Cao do justice to the music.

Howard Shelley and LMP have already recorded Cramer’s Piano Concertos Nos. 2, 7 and 8 for Chandos (CHAN10005 – review) and I’m pleased that Hyperion have not duplicated any part of that recording but have supplemented it. We’ve had to wait 17 years since Christopher Fifield reported on that ‘superb disc’, but the wait has been well worthwhile.

Just as the Jupiter Project led me to Shelley’s new Hyperion recording, so that led me back further to the Chandos, as downloaded in 24/96 sound, with pdf booklet, from chandos.net. There, too, it’s difficult to imagine that even Cramer himself, prodigious pianist as he was, could have bettered the solo performance. And it’s unlikely that the orchestras of the time would have matched the London Mozart Players. I’ve been a fan of theirs since, long ago, they were directed by Harry Blech on LP and in concert on the South Bank and, while I might have preferred period instruments, just as I would have liked to hear the solo part on something like David Owen Norris’s Broadwood, I didn’t really feel the lack.

I’ve seen it suggested that Shelley and the LMP make Cramer’s music sound better than it really is. That’s the kind of magic that Beecham used to bring off in works like Balakirev’s Symphony – the EMI recording sadly, no longer available1 – and I certainly think it would be hard to better these performances of Cramer on Hyperion and Chandos. They were a real ear-opener for me, with showy but not show-off realisations of the solo parts. With five of the eight in the can, may we have the other concertos now, please?

I should add that the Chandos recording for the earlier album is very good, too, especially in 24-bit guise, and that Steve Lindeman’s notes set off that recording extremely well. I really cannot decide which to recommend that you choose first – preferably both.

1 But there’s a 3-CD ICA box of broadcast recordings from the Richard Itter archives (ICAC5158). BnF offer a very expensive download of Beecham’s Tamara, once available on an EMI CD with the Symphony; coupled with Dvořák Symphonic Variations, it can be found for as little as £1.99 in lossless sound.

Brian Wilson

Previous reviews: Marc Rochester ~ David Barker



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