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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104 (1894/95) [37.35]
Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Cello Concerto No. 1, H.196 III (1930, rev. 1939, 1955) [24.50]
Christian Poltéra (cello)
Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/Thomas Dausgaard
rec. August 2015, Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin
BIS BIS-2157 SACD [63.18]

The Zurich-born cellist Christian Poltéra here turns his attention to two cello concertos. The Dvořák is probably the greatest ever written and certainly the best known. The second by Martinů is a worthy work that like most others struggles to find opportunities on concert programmes.

By the early 1890s Dvořák’s fame had travelled far and wide. A princely fee drew him to accept an offer of employment from Jeanette Thurber founder of the National Conservatory in New York City. From 1892 to 1895 he held the position of conservatory director. Dvořák’s stay in the United States was not only lucrative but also highly productive. The Cello Concerto was amongst the works dating from that time. Composed in 1894-95 it is dedicated to Dvořák’s friend Hanus Wihan, the founder and cellist of the Czech String Quartet.

Balancing control and concentration with splendidly judged weight of expression Christian Poltéra delivers a seductive performance producing a lovely purity of tone from his cello Stradivari ‘Mara’ (1711). Poltéra’s performance in the opening Allegro is marked by fresh air ebullience. Sadly it’s hard to ignore the flat and lifeless horn solo heard early in the movement. Poltéra’s playing in the Adagio communicates a yearning and introspective quality. It’s no coincidence that the finest players avoid the temptation to go in for self-indulgence here. In the Finale there is exhilaration to Poltéra’s gripping and expressive playing. Although clearly attuned to Dvořák’s Bohemian sensibility Poltéra cannot match the grandeur that Rostropovich brings but then again, who can? Thomas Dausgaard conducts the generally gratifying Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester Berlin although at times the performance required slightly improved cohesion.

Here Poltéra commits one of the finest recordings of the Dvořák concerto to disc but is unable to unseat Rostopovich's life-enhancing account: Berliner Philharmoniker under Herbert von Karajan on Deutsche Grammophon. Produced in 1969 at Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin it shows Rostropovich in his prime, rich in spontaneity, stunning virtuosity and passion. That award-winning recording deserves its landmark status. More strong competition comes in intensely moving form from Jacqueline du Pré with the Swedish RSO under Sergiu Celibidache on Teldec. Notable too for nobility and lyricism is Pierre Fournier with the Berliner Philharmoniker under George Szell on Deutsche Grammophon. Rather under the radar is another account which I have greatly enjoyed, played by David Finckel with the Taipei Symphony Orchestra under Felix Chiu-Sen Chen. This was recorded in 2003 at Chungshan Hall, Taipei and has been re-mastered and reissued in 2015 on ArtistLed (review).

Martinů can stand alongside Janáček as one of the most original and frequently enigmatic composers of twentieth century Czech music. Although he would often use contemporary methods in his writing such as neo-classicism and jazz he was substantially a composer grounded in tonality. Written both in his birthplace of Polička and also in Paris in 1930 it was the original dedicatee Gaspar Cassadó who introduced the Cello Concerto No. 1 scored for chamber orchestra the following year at Berlin. Dissatisfied with his orchestration the composer subjected the score to two separate and substantial revisions. The new dedicatee, Pierre Fournier was engaged to give the first performances of both the second version (which is lost) and third version given in 1939 at Paris and in 1955 at Lausanne.

Here Poltéra plays the third version of 1955 scored for full orchestra which is according to Jean-Pascal Vachon “nowadays, one of his most important works”. It’s a work I rarely, if at all, come across on concert programmes. It’s not even mentioned in the Martinů section of the Mark Morris’s book "A Guide to 20th Century Composers". In the opening movement Allegro moderato at the beginning I just love the glowing trumpet part. Poltéra is comfortable with the generally upbeat and squally character of the writing, contrasted with occasional passages of melancholy. It’s hard not to admire Martinů’s quickly moving ideas and broad variety of texture. At times the wide open spaces are evoked as popularised by Copland and Grofé yet the music speaks out with individuality. Striking in the Andante moderato is the sound of the woodwind and lonely trumpet that reminded me of Copland Quiet City. Poltéra revels in the intense searching and yearning quality that imbues the writing relieved by short and stormy passages of notable passion and power. Overall the character of the movement and the excellence of the playing makes this work a genuine highlight. Engaging and intense, the Finale: Allegro con brio feels like a heated conversation between soloist and orchestra. With its martial overtones the writing communicates an overriding sense of enjoyment. The well prepared Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester Berlin with Thomas Dausgaard are strong on atmosphere and tonal beauty.

In the Martinů, Poltéra is certainly a match for his strongest rival the 1991 account from Raphael Wallfisch with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra under Jiří Belohlávek - recorded at the Spanish Hall, Prague Castle. Another fine recording worthy of attention is from soloist Johannes Moser with the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern under Christoph Poppen on Hänssler Classics.

The BIS label has made a successful choice with the renowned recording venue Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin. On this hybrid SACD, played on my standard player, the engineering team provide a superb balance between soloist and orchestra. The warm sound quality adds to the character and overall satisfaction. An opportunity to increase the desirability of the release has been missed by not filling up the available space on the disc. Maybe Dvořák’s Silent Woods and Rondo in G minor or better still Martinů’s Concertino for cello, winds, percussion and piano would have fitted splendidly.

There we have it: a Dvořák masterpiece and a Martinů work that deserves greater exposure. Thoroughly engaging.

Michael Cookson


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