The Goffriller cello of the legendary Pablo

Amit Peled releases recording of Bach Suites (Volume I) on the Goffriller cello of Pablo Casals 

(Illustration by Avi Katz)

We all love a good story told with the vivid imagination of an artist; it is even better when the story is based on life’s authentic puzzle pieces, connecting the dots to confirm an important message: that good things happen to good people.

When it comes to musical storylines, Israeli-American cellist Amit Peled has quite a few to tell and proves to be an animated and communicative protagonist. His storytelling project: A Cello Named Pablo, geared to inspire kids’ engagement with classical music, is based on Peled’s own, very personal endeavor with “Pablo.” The piece is narrated and accompanied by the cellist’s soaring performance on the cello of legendary Pablo Casals, who Peled describes as “our cello godfather.”

Following a personal invitation from Casals’ widow Marta to perform on the master’s cello in 2012, Peled was loaned the instrument in 2014 and concludes his precious time spent with the cello recording the final volume of the Bach Suites. The release date of Volume I is February 1, 2019.

Peled’s release represents the first recording of the Bach volumes on the original instrument used by Casals since the man’s ground-breaking initial recording of the material in 1936. Since then, of course, the previously unconquered territory has become populated with countless (Peled mentions 50) major cellists’ recordings, all of them to an extent building on the legacy of Casals’ benchmark recording. Only Peled’s work, however, can claim that added layer of historic presence, making his recording above all a revision of nuanced and intimate transformation.

It was imperative for Peled to take his time getting to know and perfect his relationship with the instrument and his idol. When a student in Peled’s cello class at Peabody Conservatory, where he has taught since 2003, found an archived program of Casals’ performance at Peled’s alma mater from 1915, Peled paid homage with a concert repeating the exact program in 2015: a centennial celebration, but Peled continued to indulge several years with Casals’ instrument before approaching a recording with it, loaded as it is with such profound context.

Ever since Casals acquired the instrument in 1913, crafted by noted Venetian luthier Matteo Goffriller in 1733, the cello was an integral part of the master’s signature sound, and remained so until his death in 1973 at age 96. By including Bach’s unaccompanied cello suites, six in all, during a concert performance, Casals almost single-handedly transformed today’s common cello performance practice.  With his revelatory 1936 recording, Casals turned the highly virtuosic pieces previously deemed “pedagogical” into every cellist’s staple repertoire, and, Peled adds, “a musical bible” of sorts for cellists.

Marta Casals Istomin, a cellist and musical tour de force in her own right, wanted to ensure that the cello left in her care continued to live on the musical saga of its master, but she also understood the artist’s need to develop his or her own path: “Marta had told me to go out with it and find my own voice,” says Peled, “but what exactly does that mean? … I was in awe, but also scared. There were all these expectations of sounding like Casals, and the instrument was not an easy one to play. It was challenging in that it had so much personality of its own; I had to learn not to disturb it by only using weight and movement – no pressure whatsoever or it would lose its precious sound – but once you figured it out, it would truly let you shine,” he explains, “and then,” he adds, “the cello did indeed have the most humane voice I ever heard in an instrument.”

The recoding brought its own memorable experience for Peled. While the esteemed cellist has recorded to critical acclaim on the Naxos, Centaur, CAP, and Delos labels, this is the third recording done on his own label, CTM Classics, which stands for “catch the moment,” and as Peled explains “was born out of the desire to do just that:”seizing the opportunity to record the CD for the children’s book A Cello Named Pablo. The book is based on an initial book proposition by author Marni Fogelson who had heard Peled perform and tell his story on Public Radio’s Classics for Kids. It is illustrated by Avi Katz.

Frustrated with current contracted industry habits and waiting for others’ initiatives to come through, a successful crowdfunding initiative supported the label’s initial project. CTM launched a second recording, featuring students from Peled’s “Peabody Peled Cello Gang,” with proceeds from the CD’s sale going towards scholarships for the students.

For the recording of his first volume of the Bach Suites, engineered by the eminent Norbert Kraft and recorded in a luminous church in Baltimore, Peled brought three different bows: “It took four hours to get the sound right, but when I got it we just kept recording through.” Recording is a very personal process; each artist has his own approach. “In this case the ‘historic weight’ was evident, and while I was completely at ease with the material, I wanted to delete any expected inferences,” says Peled. He intentionally left the prelude of the first Bach Suite to be recorded at the very end of the process. “It was the most delicate to record, and after three days of recording there was a completely different mindset present,” he says.

The Bach Suites rendered new virtuosic opportunities for the cello’s previously single-pitched compositions by exploring fingering adjacent strings so that multiple pitches could sound when bowed simultaneously, producing a fuller and more varied polyphonic aural effect.

Interpretations changed throughout the many takes, channeling the energy with which artists from all over the world have approached these preludes, dances, and fugues since Casals’ historic recording; Peled’s knowledge of these different layers is palpable in this – to date – final statement.

The thoughtfully-crafted new release confirms Peled’s close proximity to Casals’ characteristic sound world yet manages to convince – perhaps especially in this memorable and delicate opening prelude, recorded last – that Peled possesses an individual and fresh outlook given voice by his own brilliant musicianship.

Peled is often at the forefront of initiatives eager to engage new audiences with unconventional performance concepts. With his chamber orchestra “The Mount Vernon Virtuosi,” which he leads as a conductor and sometimes participating cellist, he recently established the practice of kicking off a concert with the musicians’ choral singing before proceeding to the actual instrumental performance, following in the same key. “’Tuning into the concert’ provides a special atmosphere, [and] makes the performance more human and less expected,” he says. His “Mozart in Jeans” series is geared to further loosen the traditional concert experience, and special concerts for children allow for a different acoustic aura and familiarity by seating child audience members directly next to an instrument of their choice. Peled genuinely loves building community with young adults and children, saying: “Anytime, all my heart for kids.”

Peled has performed as a soloist with many of the world’s top orchestras and has built a reputation in chamber music performance with multiple musical collaborators, among them pianist Alon Goldstein, violinist Ilya Kahler (Tempest Trio), and clarinetist Alex Fiterstein. He is also a frequent guest in performances and master classes at international festivals.

Peled grew up on a kibbutz in Israel, and his wide repertoire includes works by Jewish composers in programs devoted to Jewish themes. A section on his website, “Journey with my Jewishness,” is dedicated to such musical explorations of his Jewish identity: an important facet of the artist and man.

These days, Peled returns to playing his 1800 Thomas Dodd edition cello in concert, which was handed to him by his late mentor Bernhard Greenhouse. Until the next Bach Suite recording, “Pablo” has returned to Marta’s care for some rest and will eventually continue on to inspire another gifted young cellist.

Thankful for all his exciting experiences with “Pablo,” Peled and his capable hands are secretly hoping for another journey accompanied by a historic instrument, so if anyone could point him in the direction of a Stradivarius, perhaps, do not hesitate to inspire some new musical adventures!

Ilona Oltuski