Two ‘black-sheep’ cello concertos by Shostakovich and Martinu

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COMPOSERS: Shostakovich and Martinu
LABELS: Martinu,Shostakovich
ALBUM TITLE: Martinů * Shostakovich
WORKS: Cello Concertos No 2
PERFORMER: Christian Poltéra (cello); Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/ Gilbert Varga


A welcome recording of two ‘black-sheep’ cello concertos: Shostakovich’s elusive, tragi-comic Second, and another Second, a splendid work by Martinů. Few recordings exist of the latter, which was never performed in Martinů’s lifetime after he failed to secure Gregor Piatigorsky as soloist. Written in 1945, it combines an open-road, American breeziness with soulful, Czech glow. Christian Poltéra gives a blazing account, bringing both eloquent shape and tonal richness to his melodic line. He fairly burns in the deeply nostalgic Andante while the high-kicking Allegro showcases his technical mastery, including a cadenza of glittering detail and a break-neck coda, dispatched with flair. To date, Raphael Wallfisch’s marvellous 1991 account with the Czech Philharmonic under Jiří Bělohlávek has been a benchmark: while that remains a reference for the subtlety of Bělohlávek’s orchestral handling, Poltéra is a worthy successor as soloist, and they offer a swifter, more satisfying finale.

While the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin under Gilbert Varga is lively enough in the Martinů, their literalness dampens the theatrical potential of the Shostakovich Concerto. Poltéra carries the opening movement’s sombre narrative, but the Scherzo dares not venture into vulgarity: while Alisa Weilerstein (Decca) was prepared to take the jaunty street song down a dark alley, Poltéra keeps it on the straight and narrow. When this song returns in the thunderous finale climax, Varga is heavy and over-deliberate, smoothing out the rhythmic edges. The feverish, hospital-ward atmosphere found by Weilerstein or in Pieter Wispelwey’s singularly sinister reading (Channel) is replaced here by rather incongruous jollity. 


Helen Wallace