Cellist gives beautiful homage to late musician Pablo Casals

The Palm Beach Symphony opened its new season Monday with a program celebrating the great cellist Pablo Casals. Only the strings were used, with the Israeli cellist Amit Peled as soloist.

Peled is an imposing and charismatic figure. He stands 6’5”, towering over his colleagues, and has an interpretive personality to match — once he was described as “[cellist] Jacqueline duPre in a farmer’s body.” Indeed, he shares duPre’s vital intensity and color, yet always with perfect taste.

He is touring this season celebrating Casals with programs that the Catalan maestro himself performed. The first half was the precise program Casals had presented in 1915. And he plays Casals’ cello, a magnificent 1733 Gofriller, provided by Casals’ widow, Marta Casals Istomin.

Most of the pieces were arranged for string orchestra, including the opening sonata in G Minor by Handel, originally for continuo and cello. It’s an effective arrangement of this lovely work, whose beautiful suspensions recall Arcangelo Corelli.

Next was Max Bruch’s Kol Nidre, his achingly beautiful setting inspired by a Yom Kippur chant. Peled was every bit as moving as duPre was in her classic recording. Was there a dry eye anywhere in the auditorium?

Next, going from sublime depth to pure, rollicking fun, we were given a blazing performance of David Popper’s Tarantella. This is the ultimate cello encore, crackling with virtuosic energy, humor and delight. Even the treacherous double stops held no terrors for Peled.

The first half at The Society of the Four Arts closed with Casals’ own Song of the Birds, a setting of a traditional Catalan song. It was the last piece Casals played in public — on this very instrument — in 1973 at the United Nations, a few weeks before his death.

The main work of the second half was Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 1 in C. This is an early work, lost until 1961 when it was recreated from a set of parts discovered in Prague. It’s a delightful work, and Peled and the Palm Beach strings gave a perfect performance.

The opening moderato was light as a perfectly cooked cheese soufflé, with perfect balance and classical proportion. The lovely adagio was like settling into warm bath of lyric beauty. And the propulsive allegro molto put the emphasis on molto, shooting out like a champion greyhound with no break until the climactic measure. Bravi tutti!

The concert closed with a solemn note, Ernest Bloch’s Prayer, a movement from his suite From Jewish Life, a memory of the composer’s Ashkenazic origins.

A concert that uses the featured soloist on every work is unusual, but Music Director Ramon Tebar made the right programming decision, and he and his strings matched Peled’s expression and energy without fail.