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Barber: Cello Music - Christian Poltéra/Andrew Litton/Kathryn Stott

Barber: Cello Music - Christian Poltéra/Andrew Litton/Kathryn Stott

BIS  BIS-1827 SACD

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


BARBER, Samuel (1910–81)
Concerto for Cello and Orchestra Op. 22 (1945)
Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 6 (1932)
Adagio for Strings

Christian Poltéra (cello)
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra
Andrew Litton (conductor)
Kathryn Stott (piano)


On previous discs, Christian Poltéra has combined concertos with chamber works by composers such as Frank Martin and Arthur Honegger. The recipe proved highly successful, resulting in more rounded portraits of each composer, as well as of the performer himself: while Poltéra’s performance of Martin’s Cello Concerto was described in Gramophone as having ‘an inspirational intensity to compare with the celebrated Du Pré/Barbirolli recording of the Elgar Concerto’, the reviewer in Fanfare praised him for ‘playing with the kind of semi-arrogant, swashbuckling carefree attitude that suits Honnegger to a tee’.

As he now proceeds to Samuel Barber – some twenty years younger than both Martin and Honegger – Poltéra opens his programme with the Cello Concerto, tailored especially for the Georgian-born cellist Raya Garbousova in 1945. The 25-minute long work is one of only three concertos by Barber, and is remarkable for the way in which he balances out the natural lyric expressiveness of his earlier music with a more urgent, acerbic style, highly rhythmic and intense.

That lyricism and expressivity is of course most famously heard in the enormously popular Adagio for strings, which closes the disc in a performance by the strings of the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra under Andrew Litton. But before that,

Christian Poltéra and his regular chamber-music partner Kathryn Stott gives a performance of the Sonata for Cello and Piano, composed while Barber was still a student, but brilliantly written for the two instruments.

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Mixed recording

24/96 Concerto, 24/44,1 rest
Reviews (1)
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Review by John Miller - January 8, 2013

Swiss cellist Christian Poltéra is rapidly building a promising career, partly due to his recent sets of concerto recordings for BIS. Rather than following his peers and setting down all the popular classic cello concertos, he has opted to play lesser-known twentieth century concertos, pairing them off with a chamber work from the same master. This demonstrates the intelligence of his musicianship and promises a regard for innovation.

Barber's Cello Concerto in A minor Op. 22 has been a shrinking violet compared with the hugely popular Violin Concerto, which had an immediate appeal with its Big Tunes. The Cello Concerto is not lacking in lyricism, but it has a character of overall reticence which is spiced with more spiky and "modern" manners than the Violin Concerto. A further reason for its relative lack of performances may be its formidable technical difficulty, which Poltéra bestrides with seeming ease.

The Concerto originated in 1939, with the arrival in the US of Russian cellist Raya Garbousova. Koussevitsky, a major conductor also settling in the US, suggested to Barber that he write her a cello concerto, and the composer worked on it during the last few months of the War, finishing it in late 1945. Garbousova, whose personality was enshrined in the Concerto by Barber, was a proud exponent of it for the rest of her career.

Making comparisons of the work with Barber's own conducting of another Russian cellist, Zara Nelsovia, and Yo Yo Ma's respected reading reveals that the partnership of Andrew Litton, the Bergen Philharmonic and Poltéra produces a more vivid and colourful performance than either, particularly in the Cello Concerto's outer movements. The Concerto has a fairly conservative classical structure, which is quite easy to grasp, especially with these performers. Litton starts with a purposeful tempo and never looses his grip when Barber sometimes drifts. The orchestra are on top form, as are the wind soloists, particularly the loquacious bassoons, which feature greatly in the first movement. Barber's Russian touches here sound like Shostakovich in ironic mode, while the cello's reply and re-statement sounds fretful, before the strings launch into the lovely second subject.

The slow movement, often thought of as being the work's 'heart' for its unceasing lyricism, gives Poltéra free rein with his singing tones from various parts of the cello's range. Impelled by a gentle rocking rhythm by Litton, this passage through pastoral, wistful and nocturnal moods reminds me of a classical pavane. Poltéra duets endearingly with the excellent oboist, one of many memorable passages in this movement. Its end is also deeply affecting, the cello's voice moving slowly down to its lower regions while taking its peaceful leave. There are plenty of opportunities in this slow movement for Poltéra to show off the rich sonorities of his instrument, which is described by the BIS Instrumentarium in the booklet as "Labelled Andreus Guanerius 1675". There is some doubt about this assignation, however. Charles Beare (of J. & A. Beare, the world-famous London violin dealers) told Poltéra that he thinks it’s actually by a Modena maker, Antonio Casini. Poltéra uses one of the famous Tourte bows, which he finds produces a broader, deeper tone.

A shockingly anguished orchestral outburst ushers in the finale, but the cello seems unperturbed, launching a jaunty, near-Stravinskian rhythmic stream of fantasy which eventually turns darkly to menace. Poltéra tosses off another strenuous cadenza and the movement romps to a conclusion.

Written during Barber's days as a student at the Curtis Institute, his Cello Sonata in C minor Op. 6 makes a big contrast with the later Concerto. It certainly shows off the composer's brilliance in chamber music even at that age, and takes no prisoners in its formidable technical requirements and unfettered passion. Poltéra's regular pianist for chamber concerts, Kathryn Stott, joins him. Together they plunge fearlessly into its turbulent sound-world of Brahmsian romanticism. The first movement's piano part is richly scored, almost to the point of dominating the cello, but Poltéra, aided by the excellent BIS microphone balance, is able to weather the storm. The cello, however, mostly stays within its dark tenor range, emerging somewhat to join in the achingly lovely second subject which soon blossoms forth. The end of this highly charged movement is marked by a restful conclusion in the major key.

If the piano was strongly featured in the first movement, the second offers the cello all the singing it can do. An initial Adagio section brings forth the soloist's stately, intense threnody, punctuated by thick, deep piano chords. A fleeting interruption of an abrupt scampering little scherzo vanishes, will-o-the-wisp fashion, moving into another version of the cello's Adagio to return with greater weight and grandeur. The Cello Sonata concludes with another passionate and surging piano part and heady cello responses, but this time the harmonies are more acerbic, as if Barber was finally deserting Brahms for modernism. Despite its student origin, this is a powerful piece of chamber music, hugely entertaining when in the hands of such consummate players as here.

The disc filler is the ubiquitous Adagio for Strings. Some might have preferred another less well-known Barber piece instead, but its overwhelming emotionality is consonant with the main works which are in also in the minor. In a marketing sense, it might also attract some newcomers to Barber's non-starry pieces such as the cello works. No matter; Litton and the Bergen strings give it a fine reading (and one of the very best recordings). For once one can hear clearly all Barber's layered string lines, and feel the counter-melodies, supported by the gravity of the basses and cellos.

The three recordings were done at different times, places and resolutions (Adagio, 2009, 44.1kHz/24bit; Concerto 2012, 96kHz/24bit - Grieghallen, Bergen: Cello Sonata, 44.1kHz/24bit - former Academy of Music, Stockholm). They are all of BIS' top quality, with the Adagio having a somewhat wider stage for the strings, while the Cello Concerto has a slightly more distant, narrower sound-stage. Barber's Cello Sonata is thrillingly present in one's listening room, with the microphones quite close but not cutting off the piano sound before it develops in the ambience. Also as usual with BIS, the issue is very well presented, with informative context information about the three works.

Without doubt, Poltéra has produced another remarkable disc programmed with two important but neglected cello works by Barber. As well as being highly competitive with other well-respected RBCD versions, the new Poltéra SA-CD outdoes his rivals in recorded sound. Hopefully this splendid issue will raise the status of the Cello Concerto and help it to join Barber's Violin Concerto in the pantheon of great concertos. This Concerto certainly warrants further listening; it really does grow on you.

Copyright © 2013 John Miller and HRAudio.net

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