Antony Hodgson
Classical Source
July 2019

There are many unreasonably neglected Piano Concertos dating from the early-nineteenth-century and it is greatly to Howard Shelley’s credit that he brings them frequently to public attention.

Johann Baptist Cramer (1771-1858) is a reasonably familiar name but it seems mostly to conjure up his skill as a teacher and the creator of many Etudes (Beethoven held them in high regard) which even now are given regularly to students. Cramer is also famous as virtuoso pianist, publisher and piano-maker but it is as a composer that he should be remembered. Setting aside the confusion of how many Piano Sonatas Cramer wrote—estimates vary between 105 and 200—his talents are especially well represented through his Piano Concertos, of which there are between seven and nine according to which reference book is consulted.

Cramer was born just two months later than Beethoven and he had a great respect for his contemporary so it seems natural to look for similarities but they are very few. Concerto No 4 is structured generally like those of Mozart but with a definite romantic leaning. The extensive opening Allegro con brio often relaxes into thoughtfulness; there is no cadenza and a couple of minutes before the end the main theme is varied in a surprisingly jolly fashion. Shelley is clearly content to be part of this new style for in the Andante affettuoso he shapes the unassuming theme tenderly; this expressive approach is very effective and the music moves nearer to Schumann than to Beethoven, and the Finale is also based on a very simple theme.

Concerto No 5 has a different atmosphere. Trumpets and drums are added and the work is in C minor—could this mean that the spirit of Beethoven is evident? A serious, quiet opening then a powerful restatement suggests the style of Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Piano Concerto (Cramer is credited with giving that title), but thereafter the minor key is used to beautify the melodies rather than dramatise them. Again Shelley is content to expound the themes expressively but without overstatement; it is said that Cramer’s pianism was noted for its smoothness, clarity and restraint. Most convincing is the way in which the London Mozart Players phrase every melody in exactly the same manner as the soloist—perhaps an advantage of pianist as conductor. The central Larghetto is taken gently, and the Finale, despite its dark key, enlivens proceedings with a Hungarian opening idea, the rhythm of which is retained throughout diverse subjects until revelry is restated at the close.

The performances are notable for immaculate playing and great rapport between pianist and orchestra. Shelley’s interpretations are entirely convincing and the recorded sound is excellent.