In the pantheon of cello gods, a place is surely reserved for the late, great Pablo Casals — not least for rescuing from obscurity the six magnificent suites for solo cello by Johann Sebastian Bach. So it was fascinating to hear an unusual tribute to Casals at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater on Sunday, when — courtesy of Washington Performing Arts — the Israeli-born cellist Amit Peled re-created a concert Casals gave at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore in 1915 — and performed it on Casals’s own cello.
Casals was nothing if not expressive — to a fault, at times. Some of his recordings can sound like a hot mess to modern ears, with their luxurious rubatos and approximate intonations and not-exactly-subtle phrasing. But Peled (with Noreen Polera at the piano) blended Casals-like passion with rigorous discipline, turning in a detailed, intensely focused program that featured lighter works — Beethoven’s variations on a theme from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” three lyrical pieces by Gabriel Fauré and an early Handel sonata — and the centerpiece of the afternoon, Bach’s Cello Suite No. 3 in C, BWV 1009.
The contrasts are quite startling. Pablo Casals died in 1973, Amit Peled was born that year. Casals was a diminutive 5-feet-4, Peled is a towering 6-feet-5. Casals was bald, Peled has a lion’s mane of long black hair.
One thing unites these two cellists from opposite ends of the Mediterranean: a 1733 Goffriller.
Peled, a virtuoso performer who was born on an Israeli kibbutz and studied with Bernard Greenhouse, one of Casals’ most famous students, is the latest cellist to be granted use of the magnificent instrument Casals acquired in 1913 for a reported 18,000 francs.
The instrument recently underwent a year-long refurbishment.
Casals called it “my best friend.”
Peled calls it his “Pablo.”
Amit Peled looks around as if he can't believe his ears. The Peabody Institute cellist is sitting in the Bank of America lounge on the second floor of the Mount Vernon campus's Leakin Hall for a photo shoot, and the photographer has asked him to play. He draws his bow across the cello's strings and bathes the sunny lounge in rich, gorgeous music. Almost immediately Peled looks up and remarks on how great the room sounds. He turns to a student sitting nearby and asks, "Do we ever have concerts in here?"
The lounge would likely not be big enough to accommodate the audience interested in Peled's Feb. 12 performance, which is part of the Sylvia Adalman Chamber Series. On that day Peled performs the same solo cello recital that celebrated Spanish cellist Pablo Casals performed at Peabody a century earlier. In the Feb. 7, 1915, edition of The Sun, critic John Oldmixon Lambdin wrote that "an event of the greatest magnitude will take place at the Peabody Conservatory when Pablo Casals, who is called 'the world's greatest cellist,' will be heard in recital."