The young Swiss cellist Christian Poltéra released three remarkable discs of Swiss modernist music in 2007. First came Othmar Schoeck's concerto and sonata for cello plus four song transcriptions for cello and piano. Then came Arthur Honegger's concerto and sonata for cello plus two sonatines. And last there was this one, Frank Martin's concerto and ballade for cello and 8 Preludes for orchestra. All three were released on the Swedish BIS label and featured Finnish conductor Tuomas Ollila-Hannikainen leading the Swedish Malmö Symphony Orchestra in the concertos, English pianist Kathryn Stott in the sonatas and transcriptions, and German violinist Christian Tetzlaff in Honegger's sonatine for violin in cello.
As it turns out, Poltéra may have saved the best for last. Compared with Schoeck's nostalgic romanticism and Honegger's saucy eclecticism, Martin's austere modernism comes off as deeper and more thoughtful. Too many times in the past, Martin's music has received performances that seem gray and flavorless, but not in these ardent and brilliant performances. As before, Poltéra's tone is rich, his intonation ideal, his technique impeccable, and his commitment total. But as fine as Schoeck's and Honegger's music sounded in the two earlier recordings, Martin's music sounds both more vibrant and more profound in Poltéra's hands. From the moody opening Allegro moderato through the haunting central Adagietto and the racing closing Vivace selvaggio ad aspro, Martin's Cello Concerto comes off as one of the major works written in the genre in the twentieth century. As before, Ollila-Hannikainen and the Malmö musicians do a splendid job supporting Poltéra; the solo playing from the orchestra's principals in the closing movement is especially noteworthy. As before, Stott works in a close partnership with Poltéra in the dour but expressive ballade. But this time, Stott gets a piece to herself -- the 8 Preludes for solo piano -- and acquits herself admirably with a refined technique, a muscular feeling for rhythm, and a sly sense of humor. As always, BIS' sound is cool, clear, and colorful.