Sunday, 31 January 2016

Johann Baptist Cramer: Piano Sonatas

I have always regarded Johann Baptist Cramer as an ‘honorary’ British composer. Although born in Mannheim in Germany he was taken to England aged three. He belonged to a distinguished musical family. Much of his musical education was in London, in part with Muzio Clementi.  He made a number of concert appearances beginning in April 1781, in the United Kingdom, but then embarked on a series of continental tours that made him highly regarded as a popular soloist throughout Europe. During this period, he met Beethoven and Haydn. Cramer made his home in London and divided his time between recitals, teaching and publishing. In 1824 he founded what would become J.B. Cramer & Co. in partnership with Robert Addison and T. Frederick Beale. During the years 1832-1845 he had protracted visits to Paris, however he returned to England where he died in 16 April 1858. His output of piano music was huge and included 105 sonatas and nine concertos for the instrument. His best known work at this present time are his books of 84 Études for the piano, op.84. He was a Founder Member and director of the Philharmonic Society.

The CD opens with Air Anglo-Calédonien Varié (An Anglo-Caledonian Air, with Variations for the Pianoforte). This work was first heard in London in 1812. It was dedicated to Miss Baillie of Grosvenor Street. The liner notes explain that this was ‘presumably’ the playwright and poet Joanna Baillie (1762-1851).  The Monthly Magazine (August 1812) notes that the ‘general style of the music of these pages is florid, free, and playful; the most is made of the theme, which, if not strikingly sweet, is considerably attractive, and the aggregate effect is worthy the long-acknowledged talents of the composer.’ I found that this work is a delight: the composer has managed to create an interesting and thoughtful exploration of a charming little tune.
The first of three sonatas presented here is the D major, op.25, no.2. This was composed around 1801 and was dedicated to the Baronne de Kloest, the wife (I think) of the Prussian ambassador to London.  It is written in three movements, all of which are of an untroubled disposition. The final ‘Rondo quasi presto’ is exciting and has considerable ‘dash and ebullience.’

In 1807 Cramer wrote a set of three sonatas, op. 39. The first two were ‘accompanied’ by violin or flute. The third was for solo piano. Interestingly this work opens with a set of variations based on a thoughtful adagio. The middle movement is a short scherzo with a reflective trio section. The finale is a ‘Gigue’, which gives the title to the sonata. It is played presto, and is vivacious.

The Sonata in F minor, op.27, no. was composed around 1802. The liner notes are correct in suggesting that it ‘suggests a new world of music.’ This is music that seems to anticipate Beethoven’s middle and even late periods. The sonata is in four movements. It beings with a slow introduction, leading to a well-balanced allegro. The slow movement is short and has a foreboding theme. The final movement is a happy-go-lucky rondo. 

Matteo Napoli was born in Salerno and now lives in Auckland, New Zealand. He graduated with honours from the Giordano Conservatory in Foggia, Italy.  His career has included concerts and recitals in Europe, New York, Mexico City, Japan, Australia, China and Malaysia.  His current CDs include the Keyboard Sonatas of Baldassare Galuppi, and as the accompanist in flute and piano music by Friedrich Kuhlau, Ferdinand Ries and Franz Schubert, all on the Naxos label. 

The liner notes are essential, as there is little else published that can help the listener approach these pieces. Perhaps a little more detail may have been of use. The sound quality of the recording is splendid. The playing is exciting, sympathetic and exacting. 
This a fine addition to a fairly small corpus of Cramer’s recorded music. At present, the catalogues has four of the piano concertos and only nine (plus the three on this disc) of the 105 solo sonatas. The 84 Studies were released by Grand Piano GP613-4 record label in 2012. 
I imagine that it will be a long while until any record company and pianist get around to making a ‘complete’ edition of Johann Baptist Cramer’s piano sonatas and other music. Let us hope that this is not an impossible dream. I eagerly await further releases from Matteo Napoli.

Track Listing:
Johann Baptist CRAMER (1771-1858)
Air Anglo-Calédonien Varié (1812)
Piano Sonata in D major, op.25, no.2 (c.1801)
La Gigue, Piano Sonata in G major, op.39, no.3 (1807)
Piano Sonata in F minor, op.27, no.1 (1802)
Matteo Napoli (piano)
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first publsihed. 

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