Martinů: Cello Concerto No 2, H 304; Shostakovich: Cello Concerto No 2, Op 126

Reviewed on Mon 25 Sep, 2017

Take the Allegretto second movement, based on a skittish folksong about buying bagels, where the soloist enjoys playful badinage with the woodwinds before giving way to a raucous call to arms from two horns and a snare drum.

Shostakovich’s Second Cello Concerto (1966) combines subtle introversion with barely controlled rage and the beauty of this production is in the way it balances those key elements, with Christian Poltéra and his Berlin collaborators never overplaying the more dramatic moments for the sake of effect. Take the Allegretto second movement, based on a skittish folksong about buying bagels, where the soloist enjoys playful badinage with the woodwinds before giving way to a raucous call to arms from two horns and a snare drum. We’re now in the finale, and when the full orchestra revisits those same fanfares (9:20) and then sweeps shockingly back into the ‘bagel’ folksong, Gilbert Varga and his orchestra make sure not to overwhelm Poltéra. OK, Rostropovich and Svetlanov (Warner, Melodiya) may be more ferocious, but by keeping their distance Poltéra and Varga allow us a clearer view of the bigger picture. As for the Concerto’s ambiguous close, with its shuffling percussion (think of the Fifteenth Symphony, then just five years away) and the slow sting of the cellist’s last crescendoing note – pure genius! Martinů’s Second Concerto (1945) has an interesting history, well related in this context by annotator Michael Crump. Here the language is predominantly lyrical, especially in the first two movements, whereas the energetic finale offers Poltéra greater scope for display. Throughout both works his tone is warm, his phrasing flexible and the attack of his bow admirably agile.
–Rob Cowan