Witold LUTOSŁAWSKI (1913-1994)
Concerto for cello and Orchestra (1969-70) [24.58]
Sacher Variation for cello solo (1975) [3.33]
Henri DUTILLEUX (b.1916)
Tout un monde lointain (Concerto for Cello and Orchestra) (1967-70) [30.43];
Trois strophes sur le nom de Sacher (1975) [9.27]
Christian Poltéra (cello)
ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra/Jac van Steen
rec. RadioKulturhaus, Vienna, November 2008
BIS BIS-SACD-1777 [70.04]

I have read a few reviews of this disc already. All of them, quite rightly, emphasise the connections of the two main works here with the great cellist Rostropovich. He gave the premieres and first recorded them in 1974, originally on LP since reissued on EMI Classics. I am still the proud possessor of the original LP (HMV ASD3145) and very good it sounds, even now. It’s worth adding that Boris Pergamenschikov has also recorded the work for Chandos under the insight of Yan Pascal Tortelier and the BBC Philharmonic on Chandos (CHAN9565), a version not mentioned much in the press reviews but one I especially heard before tackling this new recording.

When you listen to Dutilleux bear in mind that this is a composer whose life-blood is fantasy and poetry. Fantasy figures in terms of lack of strict forms and exotic orchestrations inclduing a wide variety of percussion. Poetry has its place not only directly, as here, but in terms of long, lyrical lines both from the soloist and instruments within the orchestration.

The title of the Dutilleux work is taken from the words of poet Charles Baudelaire whose symbolist-mystical poetry formed its inspiration. Each movement is headed by a quote, given in the booklet. Apparently these were added later. The first section, ‘Enigma’ is succinctly marked “... And in this strange and symbolic nature”.

Three movements, that is part of the first, most of the third ‘Houles’ and the whole of the final ‘Hymne’ are fast; the rest are mostly magically slow.

All three performances, that is including the original Rostropovich one are, it seems to me, of equal beauty although the latter also has historic interest. And in each the recording quality is not an issue. But in this new BIS CD I find that I hear more orchestral detail than before. I think this is because the Orchestre de Paris for Baudo and EMI is set just a little further away from the soloist’s space and mics. That remark applies to both concertos. Poltéra seems to be more sensitive to small details but I don’t especially like his throw-away ending. Pergamenschikov has a slightly more powerful attack throughout and is somewhat faster in the ‘Miroirs’ movement. In all he is two and a half minutes quicker than Poltéra. So, you pays your money and you takes your choice.

The Lutosławski Concerto is a tougher work to crack. When I first heard it as a sixth former it seemed to be incredibly modern. On that original EMI LP one hears the authentic voice of the composer who conducts. It opens with a sort of cadenza based around one note which Poltéra does brilliantly and which the composer marks uniquely ‘with a frivolous atmosphere’. This is not however a ‘frivolous work’. Indeed, reading the typically fascinating and insightful booklet notes by Arnold Whittall one realizes that there could well be a socio-political backdrop to this piece, written as it was, at a time of great stress in relationships between the Communist Bloc, Russia and the European west. It contrasts with Dutilleux in that it plays without a break despite the fact that, according to Whittall, it falls into seventeen sections. More significantly it is a traditional concerto in one respect: it inhabits the world of soloist-against-orchestra in which the soloist comes out of it a little ‘battered and bruised’ but with an element of victory over the oppressor. By contrast, in the Dutilleux the cello weaves around the orchestra - sometimes partner, sometimes leader, sometimes taking a back-seat for the sake of the overall soundscape. Lutosławski encapsulates ‘drama’; Dutilleux addresses the French sensibility of beauty for its own sake.

The couplings are interesting. The Chandos CD has other Dutilleux, for example ‘Metaboles’. Here Christian Polterá, quite logically, gives us another brief work by each of the composers. Lutosławski’s Sacher Variation is a bit of a ‘chip off the old block’, linking to the world of the concerto. The six letters of Paul Sacher’s surname are set as a row against the remaining six notes of the scale in an ingenious cross-referencing of ideas which retains interest throughout. Dutilleux also takes the great musical entrepreneur’s name in his Trois Strophes sur le nom de Sacher and develops it into a three (brief) movement piece ending in a virtuoso scherzo that would surely have pleased this great supporter of twentieth century composers.

This is a very fine release, superbly recorded and played. If you are new to these works then I can think of no other versions which quite match up to the demands of modern day listeners.

Gary Higginson