Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 22 (1945) [26:48]
Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 6 (1932)* [18:00]
Adagio for Strings, Op. 11 (1936)** [8:25]
Christian Poltéra (cello) *Kathryn Stott (piano)
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrew Litton
rec. January 2012, **October 2009, Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway; *July 2009, Nybrokajen in the former Academy of Music, Stockholm, Sweden. DSD
BIS-1827-SACD [54:13]
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The Swiss cellist, Christian Poltéra has already made discs for BIS of music by Schoeck, Honegger and Martin (review). I haven’t heard any of those discs but on the evidence of this latest offering that’s an omission that I must rectify. I note with some interest that on each of the previous discs he’s performed the Cello Concerto by the composer concerned and has included also their respective sonatas – or similar compositions – for the instrument. That seems to me to be a splendid idea. On each of those discs he was joined for the chamber works by Kathryn Stott and here she partners him in Barber’s Cello Sonata.
The sonata is an early work; in fact it was composed while Barber was still a student at the Curtis Institute. It’s a tremendously assured piece which bursts into passionate, ardently romantic life right from the start. It seems to me that Christian Poltéra is ideally suited to this music, not least because he obtains a gloriously rich and full tone from his 1675 Guarnerius cello. Kathryn Stott, faced with a very full piano part, matches the ardour of his playing. The second movement is, I suppose, in ABA format in that a central presto section is framed by an Adagio. The presto is tremendously vital and it’s despatched here with great vigour and precision. The flanking adagio passages are passionately sung by Poltéra, especially second time around. The music of the finale is Big Stuff. Kathryn Stott launches proceedings with powerful delivery of a piano part that is positively Brahmsian. Thereafter both players offer impassioned, urgent playing in a thrilling account of this tumultuous movement. This really is a superb account of a very fine work.
The Adagio for Strings acts as a ‘filler’ on this disc. It’s beautifully played by the Bergen strings. I was very struck by a comment in Malcolm MacDonald’s excellent notes. We all know that the piece has acquired the status of an Elegy in the last fifty years or so, rather in the same way that Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ has achieved similar status, though neither composer envisaged their music in such a guise. MacDonald says that when Barber was composing his String Quartet, for which this movement was written, his inspiration for the adagio came from Virgil’s pastoral poems, his Georgics, and that Barber found there the image of ‘a stream that grows into a river’. Litton’s performance tends towards the elegiac and, to be truthful, is not really the worse for that. However, just out of interest I dug out the recording of Toscanini giving the first performance of the Adagio in 1938 (review). He takes 7:05 and a 1942 recording by him, issued by Victor, takes 7:07 (review). I find no lack of solemnity in Toscanini’s way with the music but I do appreciate the greater sense of flow and forward momentum that he brought to the music in what were its earliest days before the public.
The Cello Concerto is not as immediately winning as its predecessor for violin; for one thing it’s a more restless work and doesn’t have the Violin Concerto’s seemingly effortless stream of lyricism. However, it’s a fine work and even if it is in some ways a tougher proposition than the earlier concerto it still has a strong lyrical impulse. In the first movement, which is the most extensive of the three, energetic, spiky music vies with lyrical material for the listener’s attention. Poltéra is a highly persuasive soloist and the accompaniment from Litton and his orchestra is first rate. The success of the performance is helped by the BIS recording, which offers vivid, realistic sound and which balances the soloist very satisfactorily against the orchestra. The movement culminates in a hugely demanding cadenza (7:22 - 9:23) in which Poltéra is commanding, as he is throughout the concerto. I admired very much the eloquence that he and the orchestra bring to the Andante sostenuto, which is a lovely example of melancholy minor-key lyricism. The fast and furious finale is marked Allegro appassionato and the second of those two words is very much to the fore in this performance, which is full of flair and drama. Poltéra’s playing is powerful and urgent and here, as elsewhere, he proves himself to be a notable advocate for this concerto.
There have been several fine recordings of the Cello Concerto, including one by Stephen Isserlis (review), a CBS-Sony version by Yo-Yo Ma and the composer’s own 1950 account with Zara Nelsova as soloist (review). However, amongst versions that I’ve heard this new one from Christian Poltéra strikes me as being as fine as any and the splendid reading of the Cello Sonata is a second compelling reason for purchasing this disc.
I’ve mentioned the sound quality in respect of the concerto. I listened to this recording in CD format and found that all three recordings are fully up to the usual excellent BIS standards, as is the documentation.
John Quinn
See also Download review by Brian Wilson

Barber’s works for solo cello in splendid new performances.

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