By Roger Emanuels
IT WAS A WONDERFUL CELLO WEEKEND in Santa Cruz. The Distinguished Artists concert series launched its season with a pair of colorful and engaging concerts by cellist Amit Peled. As a benefit for the Juanita Orlando Piano Fund, Peled performed two of J.S. Bach’s solo cello suites in the small, intimate Holy Cross Chapel on Friday, September 23. And the next day he appeared in a duo program with pianist Noreen Polera at Holy Cross Church.
Amit Peled is an Israeli cellist currently teaching at Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. He performs internationally as soloist and chamber musician, and has produced several CD recordings. His cello, made by Matteo Goffriller in Venice in 1733, was the personal favorite of Pablo Casals (1876-1973), the most noted cellist of all time. Peled obviously enjoys the resonance of the Goffriller, relishing those rich low tones on the C string. In Casals’ hands it sounded different. As Peled explained, a great instrument only allows the player to sing with his or her own voice.
It was Casals who breathed new life into the six solo suites of Bach in the early 20th century. The music has since become a staple of all cellists and a favorite of many listeners. (There are people who claim that a recording of the suites would be their first selection if left stranded on a desert island.)
Suites No. 1 and No. 2 were on the program, but Peled decided to begin the evening with a short piece, “Jewish Song” by Ernest Bloch. It was a good way to test the acoustics of the chapel, a space that although not designed for music proved very adequate. Hearing solo cello in this small space was a pleasure. The Bach suites each contain six pieces of different character, most of them representing courtly dances. Those twelve different movements provide a cellist with the opportunity to explore a variety of rhythmic and expressive elements. Peled offers a very convincing approach, and easily draws the attention of the listener with musical gestures that exaggerate contrasts of tonal color.
This exploration of contrasts became even more evident in the duo recital on Saturday. Following the opening Sonata No. 1 by Miaskovsky, a rambling, Tchaikovsky-inspired epic, there was much more to savor. Three Pieces, of 1911, by Nadia Boulanger are character vignettes that explore a range of expressions and closing with an endearing and lively finale. Peled has an expressive way of playing and has a sure technique that puts the listener at ease.
Ernest Bloch’s From Jewish Life dates from 1925 and consists of three pieces. (The second piece was on the program the night before, but without piano accompaniment.) Here the cellist becomes the cantor, bending pitches and sliding (glissando) between notes as in a vocal style. Peled makes use of all the techniques available, and the resulting sound is strong and convincing.
The Sonata No. 1 by Brahms was first performed in 1865, and as with the Bach solo suites, has become a staple of every cellist. Peled approached the work without rush, allowing the melodic character of the first two movements to unfold expansively. The final movement is a driving fugue and he let the forward motion build to the hair-raising coda at the end of the movement. But even in this movement he allowed for great contrasts of color and dynamics.
Pianist Noreen Polera was an outstanding partner throughout the program. She shadowed the cellist’s whims of tempo fluctuations in the Bloch, and in the Brahms it was a rare treat to hear such delicate and sensitive balance that allowed the cellist to play very softly and still be heard easily.
David Popper’s Hungarian Rhapsody was the single encore. It’s a flashy gypsy piece that was composed in response to a similar virtuoso piano piece by Liszt. Amit Peled became the gypsy, obviously enjoying the role of a café entertainer. It’s a very demanding piece and he played it flawlessly.