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Shostakovich, Martinů: Cello Concertos No. 2 - Poltéra, Varga

Shostakovich, Martinů: Cello Concertos No. 2 - Poltéra, Varga

BIS  BIS-2257

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


Shostakovich: Cello Concerto No. 2
Martinů: Cello Concerto No. 2

Christian Poltéra (cello)
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin
Gilbert Varga (conductor)


The two cello concertos by Dmitri Shostakovich were both were written for his friend Mstislav Rostropovich but whereas the First is rhythmic and virtuosic, the Second is subdued and introverted. Composed in 1966, it is often regarded as a watershed work, heralding Shostakovich's final stylistic period marked by a certain sombreness and a trend towards more transparent scoring. The Op. 126 concerto has become somewhat overshadowed by its older, more accessible sibling, something which also applies to the second work on this disc, for completely different reasons.

Having completed his Cello Concerto No. 2 in 1945, Bohuslav Martinů was unsuccessful in his attempts to interest a leading cellist in promoting it. When the composer furthermore reworked his first cello concerto in 1955, the new version effectively obliterated all traces of the 1945 concerto, which didn't receive its first performance until 1965, six years after Martinů’s death. The work is melodious with lyrical qualities, and many have interpreted it as an expression of the nostalgia the composer experienced as an exile in the U.S.A. during the last winter of World War II. The present disc is a follow-up to Christian Poltéra's critically acclaimed 2016 release, with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, of Martinů's Cello Concerto No. 1, coupled with Dvořák's Cello Concerto.

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PCM recording

Recorded in February 2016 at the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin-Dahlem, Germany

Producer: Hans Kipfer (Take5 Music Production)

Sound engineer: Stephan Reh

BIS’s recording teams use microphones from Neumann and Schoeps, audio electronics from RME, Lake People and DirectOut, MADI optical cabling technology, monitoring equipment from B&W, STAX and Sennheiser, and Sequoia and Pyramix digital audio workstations

Editing and mixing: Hans Kipfer & Robert Suff (BIS), Rainer Pöllmann (Deutschlandradio Kultur)
Reviews (1)
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Review by Adrian Quanjer - May 25, 2017

Brilliant! BIS has hit the jackpot with this new recording. Not only with the glowing account of Shostakovich’s second cello concerto, but also with the by many dearly wanted Martinů 2, thus far unavailable in high resolution (and hardly in any other format!).

To begin with Shostakovich, and drawing a parallel with: Shostakovich: Violin Concerto No. 1, Gubaidulina: In tempus praesens - Lamsma / Gaffigan / de Leeuw, we once more seem to be dealing with the phenomenon that a major work of his gets, if played well, all the stars (Rostropovich, Schiff, Müller-Schott, Mork, Weilersten, to name but a few, all on RBCD and two more in Hi-res). A possible and maybe even logical explanation would be that only the most competent players will take it on. But that’s not the full picture. The quality of the composition seems to play an equally important role in anyone’s judgement. In that respect it may be noted that Shostakovich is, in any case as far as I’m concerned, one of the best composers of the past century. And although his second cello concerto is not quite an uplifting experience, one cannot deny that Shostakovich’s imaginative scoring is second to none. It creates such an awfully mind-invading experience, that one cannot escape its moments of anguish. So, in the final analysis, all the rewards go in equal measure to the composer and the interpreters, to which I reckon the conductor, too.

Christian Poltéra has successfully recorded for BIS before (see for instance: Barber: Cello Music - Christian Poltéra/Andrew Litton/Kathryn Stott ). And here he proves once again, with supreme mastery, that he is one of the very best cellists around. In fact, on the basis of what he does, I can hardly think of anyone else who could play Shostakovich better. He has such a technical command over his instrument that he can bring all his attention to bear on an execution that takes away your breath and forces you sit on the edge of your seat.

In the past soloists got away with bad intonation when playing contemporary music. As it was new to many ears and therefore did not immediately strike as being played out of tune, it did in the end more harm than good. Disregarding some modern composers using intermediate and half tones, like the French composer Mantovani (No. For all I know not related to the other one!), all notes of Shostakovich are real, and for those who are sensitive to pitch, correct intonation in these works is of prime importance. And that is the other strength of the Swiss cellist, Poltéra. He is, even in the most difficult passages, secure and rock solid; at any level and any speed. In his hands Shostakovich moves, as it were, from contemporary to modern classical. As his music should by now and by all means be considered.

Drawing a wealth of timbres from his Antonio Stradivarius, Cremona 1711, ‘Mara’, from rough to polished, from wailing to singing, Poltéra keeps the listener spell bound from Shostakovich’s austere, quasi solo introduction to the very last, drawn out note. The only other one who is of comparable competence, the Dutch cellist, Pieter Wispelwey, does not have a complementary concerto on offer.

There is no point in copying the excellent and detailed notes in the booklet (signed: Michael Crump), giving every bit of information one wants to know, other than to say that the mood is at times somber, dramatic and deeply rooted in the Russian (Ukrainian) soul. Stalin’s death in 1953 gradually freed up composers minds to become themselves, but Shostakovich kept to his traditional disguise of hiding his real feelings behind a screen of double faced backward looking ponderous and eerie inspiration. A true masterpiece!

Martinů’s second is, compared to Shostakovich, better accessible, with more lyrical melody and Dvorakian influence. Written during American exile (on supposed commission for someone, who didn’t like it after all) it has all the hallmarks of his wish to return to his Czech home land, which, after the Second World War, never happened due to a ‘democratic’ communist takeover.

Needless to say that I’m here equally impressed with Poltéra’s inspired playing; so clearly and ably translating Martinů’s attempt to impress his hoped for dedicatee on the one hand, and his nostalgic longing for his homeland on the other. I’m most indebted to Poltéra, who seems to specialize in reviving and drawing attention to less frequently played gems, to bring this concerto to our eager notice. For brevity I refer once more to Michael Crump’s description of background and movements of the concerto.

I came to know Gilbert Varga as a very humane Chef at the finals of the 2012 ‘Concours Reine Elisabeth’ (violin), Brussels, Belgium, putting himself with such empathy and compassion at the service to all soloists with faithfully and unselfishly directing the orchestra in its supportive role. I sensed the same attitude in creating the supportive background for Poltéra, leading the DSO Berlin, the other outstanding Berliner Band, formerly known as the RIAS Symphony Orchestra of which we still cherish the old recordings with Ferenc Fricsay, towards a perfect rendition of both works. But this time I noticed, on top of that, his control of the many and thrilling dynamics, especially as far as Shostakovich is concerned, and the ability to create an orchestral texture that is at the same time lean and impressive.

In collaboration with Deutschlandradio Kultur BIS has produced a superlative, original 24 bit/96 KHz, recording, with an astonishingly wide dynamic sound field, guaranteeing so decisively an overall emotional experience. This is a release that should on no account be missed.

Blangy-le-Château,
Normandy, France.

Copyright © 2017 Adrian Quanjer and HRAudio.net

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Comment by William Hecht - July 7, 2017 (1 of 1)

Spot on, Adrian. A terrific disc and a rare opportunity to hear each work uncoupled from its more famous sibling. If Robert's following comments I'd just add: more Martinu, please!