A clueless concertgoer once complimented Jascha Heifetz on the sound of his violin. The great virtuoso held the instrument up to his ear, so the story goes, frowned and said, “Funny, I don’t hear anything.”
Without the performer, in other words, the instrument can’t accomplish much. So it would not be particularly noteworthy that a priceless 282-year-old cello once played by the Spanish virtuoso Pablo Casals was used for a concert Thursday in Coral Gables. Except that in this case, the instrument was in the hands of a performer fully worthy of it.
Israeli-born cellist Amit Peled, now a professor at Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory, performed a recital at Coral Gables Congregational United Church of Christ, ably accompanied by pianist Noreen Polera. The Community Arts Program recital was designed as a tribute to Casals, whose widow lent Peled her late husband’s 1733 cello, made by the Venetian master Matteo Goffriller. A lustrous, dark-streaked burgundy instrument, the cello appeared tiny in the hands of the six-foot-five Peled.
During a post-concert Q-and-A that Peled offered in place of an encore, he dodged a request to name his favorite composer by saying that he preferred whatever composer whose work he happened to be playing at the time. While this may seem like a diplomatic response, such was Peled’s versatility that he appeared equally at home in the complex figurings of Bach, as in, say, the turbulent Romanticism of Fauré.
The duo opened the recital with Handel’s Sonata in G Minor. Peled employed a stout, noble tone in Handel’s melodies, with a narrow vibrato that brought the melodies to life without overdoing it, just enough to contrast with the organ-like procession of chords on the piano.
You may hear more extroverted performances of Bach’s suites for solo cello than Peled’s playing of the Suite No. 3 in C Major. And in the hands of lesser performers, the fast streams of notes can become shapeless, pointlessly repetitive or grist for a display of empty virtuosity. But his playing was extraordinarily clean and robust, with an overarching sense of the musical shape of each short movement. His precision, style and musical intelligence provided all the energy needed.
The fast opening Prelude rolled forward with a sense of downward motion. The cellist brought a searching, meditative tone to the slow Sarabande, creating a sense of mist and uncertainty that he blasted away with the bright, vigorous tones of the Bouree. Peled gave a high-energy account of the concluding Gigue. Along with his fast and precise bow work, Peled brought an astringent bite to his playing as the harmonies became stranger and more dissonant, giving the movement a rough, earthy tone that fit the music.
His clean, elegant style worked well in Beethoven’s Variations on a Theme from Mozart’s “Magic Flute.” Through most of this light, melodious work, his playing was courtly and Classical, but then it took on a thundering, Beethovenian snarl as the music darkened and turned more violent.
Next came three short works by Fauré. He gave a dark and passionate performance of the Elegie, using a wider, more songlike vibrato than he used in the works of Handel or Bach, with a keen emotional edge to his playing. Papillons was a fast-paced tribute to the fluttering butterfly, a sort of lepidopteral Flight of the Bumblebee, handled by Peled with effortless virtuosity and a touch of humor.
The concert closed with the galloping rhythms and chords of Saint Saëns’s Allegro Appassionata, and with that Peled, Polera and the celebrated cello were done for the night.
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