History Breathed On Us

Amit Peled performs a 100-year old program on a 300-year old instrument—and invokes the spirit of Pablo Casals


Any event at the Salon Piano Series at Farley’s House of Pianos contains at least a whiff of musical history: The establishment has long been renowned for its superb restorations of historic keyboards. So much so that pianists who get within a few hours of Madison will arrange to come and play one or more of the fine instruments, and a few times a year a hundred or so lucky folks get to soak up the results.

Happily, the artistic sensibilities of Tim and Renee Farley extend beyond “mere” pianism, and cellist Amit Peled made a return visit Saturday night (pictured above, photo courtesy of the artist). The event could hardly have been more auspicious from a purely esthetic perspective; Peled has been playing the c. 1733 Goffriller cello played by Pablo Casals for the last couple of years or so. Shortly after having the instrument loaned to him by Casals’ widow, Peled discovered at his place of work, the Peabody Conservatory of Music, a program that Casals performed there in 1915. It was one stop on an extended U.S. tour, and suddenly Peled knew what part of the purpose was in having this instrument at his disposal: Repeat the program.

And so, joined by Noreen Cassidy-Polera, Peled not only produced his usual brand of supreme mastery of the instrument, but evoked the artistic spirit of the man who was arguably, if not the greatest pure cellist of his century, was certainly the most powerful influence for art and humanity. I know that’s a big claim; doubters are referred to Casals’ moving autobiography, Joys and Sorrows.

The evening began with a detailed talk from luthier Dan Hendricks, pointing out many fascinating facts about the history of Goffriller and this instrument. While the label is dated 1733, it may have been built as early as 1710.

The music opened with a Handel Sonata in G Minor, regal and stately in its opening, the later movements displaying the richness of the instrument’s low register.

But it was the ensuing Suite No. 3 of J.S. Bach that gave one pause; this instrument was essentially knew before this music was written around 1717…and how many times must have Casals performed it on this same cello? For Casals, Bach was the supreme expression, the most transcendent of all composers. Casals wrote that he had a habit of beginning each day by playing a prelude and fugue of Bach (on the piano—yes he could do that, too!); “it was like a benediction upon the house,” he said. Yes, and the Farley’s audience was blessed beyond description. The first half ended with Beethoven’s “Seven Variations on ‘Bei Mannern, welche Liebe fuhlen.’” Here was a true (and often witty) dialogue that gave full evidence of why Cassidy-Polera had taken first prize in accompanying at the Tchaikovsky competition some years ago. Almost forgot: The piano being used was a 1914 Mason and Hamlin, the preferred piano of Casals.

It was after intermission that Peled gave us the story behind receiving the cello, and his—and Casals’ approach—to playing. When Mrs. Marta Casals Istomin gave the cello to Peled, she told him that Casals said that in the end, you will be remembered by your voice. There will always be someone who tries to play louder of faster, but it is your voice that remains.

The music continued with three short works of Gabriel Faure; Casals was a good friend of the composer, and in 1915 this was new music. Casals championed the “Elegie,” “Sicilienne,” and “Papillon” as often as possible. Peled made them fresh to ears that have heard the first two works many times.

A return to Bach, an arrangement of the aria from the Organ Pastorale, BWV 590, followed. The audience gave Peled and Cassidy-Polera the ultimate compliment, a long silence before the applause.

The close was a tour de force courtesy of Saint-Saens, in the “Allegro appassionato,” Op. 43. Nailed it (of course).

All that remained was a fabulous Q and A with the performers, not to mention the lovely reception that is included at every Salon Piano Series event. They will break the mold again in May with a return visit from jazz great Dick Hyman, who will present a workshop on the 7th and a combo recital/jazz trio program on the 8th. Can’t wait…

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