This was an impressive disc so I was pleased when the opportunity came to hear a new release from BIS of the Barber Cello Concerto, Cello Sonata and Adagio for strings with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra www.bergenphilharmonic.org conducted by Andrew Litton www.andrewlitton.com with Kathryn Stott (piano) www.kathrynstott.com.
Many people know of Samuel Barber (1910-1981) because of one single work, his Adagio for strings. Whilst his output was relatively modest (his numbered works total 48) he wrote two symphonies, a number of orchestral works, a concerto each for violin, cello and piano, three operas, songs, chamber music, piano music and works for organ.
Barber’s Cello Concerto Op.22, dates from 1945 and was commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky for the cellist Raya Garbousova. Such was the collaboration between composer and performer, Garbousova later recalled that it was one of the most creative and happiest times of her life.
Right from the beginning, Andrew Litton and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra bring a freshness and clarity to the music. As the cello enters, Christian Poltéra’s lyrical tone is most beguiling, rich yet not dense. He is incisive in the passages where it is required and is particularly telling in the quiet moments. The cello and orchestra are beautifully balanced. In the first movement cadenza, Poltéra displays all his various strengths, richly melodic, crisp and clear, with lovely intonation in the upper range. Andrew Litton draws a really idiomatic sound from the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra. And what playing at the end of the first movement - simply breathtaking.
The wistful andante sostenuto unfolds with a beautifully controlled flow, every nuance caught, thus bringing out more than usual of the music’s inner feeling without ever being sentimental. The music can often flag in the final molto allegro but here Christian Poltéra finds every opportunity to lift the work, providing a wonderful array of timbres to add to the interest, spinning some lovely sounds on the cello. A wonderful dialogue ensues between cello and orchestra and, towards the coda, there is some particularly brilliant playing from this cellist. In the hands of a superb artist such as this, the concerto is elevated beyond a merely attractive lyrical work to something that sounds more like a masterwork.
Christian Poltéra and Kathryn Stott make a fine partnership in Barber’s early cello sonata. The sonata dates from 1932 and was partly written whilst staying in Italy with the composer Menotti. In this performance the pacing is excellent as the music settles on the lovely main theme showing that, even at the age of twenty two, Barber knew how to write a great tune. There is sensitive playing in the quiet passages where both artists seem to know instinctively what the other is doing. There is a wonderful control of dynamics.
The adagio is unusual in that it is interrupted midway by a fleeting, lively presto before returning to the original tempo. In the presto, both players are superb and, in the return of the adagio, Christian Poltéra brings some powerful playing allowing one just to relish his gorgeous cello tone. In the allegro appassionato, Christian Poltéra and Kathryn Stott provide all the fire and virtuosity you could wish for, bringing this attractive sonata to a fine close. There isn’t a routine moment in this performance.
Who doesn’t know Barber’s Adagio for strings. From its original form as part of his string quartet, Barber made a string orchestra arrangement for Toscanini and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra with whom it received its first performance in a radio broadcast in 1938. He later arranged it for organ, clarinet choir and woodwind choir as well as a setting of the Agnus Dei for choir.
Andrew Litton brings poise to this music that often eludes other conductors who like to bring out every last drop of emotion. Here the music holds back, rises, falls and then pushes forward in a direct way that is all the more telling for its reticence. The strings of the Bergen Philharmonic have a transparency that helps the music a lot.
The recordings on this disc, from the Grieghallen, Bergen (Adagio and Concerto) and the former Academy of Music, Nybrokajen, Stockholm (Sonata) are excellent. I look forward to further releases from this cellist.