Last night in Herbst Theatre, cellist Amit Peled returned to San Francisco to give his second San Francisco Performances recital, having first appeared in 2009. His accompanist, Noreen Cassidy-Polera was making her third appearance, having played for cellist Clancy Newman in 2004 and 2007. The title of the recital was Homage to Pablo Casals, which was only explained after the intermission. The program that Peled prepared duplicated (with one exception) a program that Casals had performed on a visit to the Peabody Conservatory of Music, where Peled now teaches. Furthermore, thanks of Casals’ widow, Marta Casals Istomin, Peled performed on Casals’ own Goffriller cello, an instrument as fascinating in its design as Casals was in his approaches to execution.
As part of his explanation, Peled observed that, in Casals’ day, concerts tended to be viewed more as entertainment than they are today. He proposed the simile that a concert program was like the menu for a fine dinner. It would begin with an aperitif, followed by a main course (which probably would have been steak for many in Casals’ audience) and concluding with dessert. This allowed him to introduce the second half of the program as an extended “dessert course,” short pieces to be appreciated for their pleasures rather than their profundities.
One might quibble with the idea of a meal half of which consisted of desserts, but Peled approached all of this with an amiable style. (He even asked for the lights to be raised, so that he could have a better view of the audience. He deserves high marks for this, particularly since it meant that members of the audience also had a better view of their program books!) The fact is that this portion of the program offered up a variety of well-conceived compositions, just as the best desserts have something to offer beyond mere sweetness.
Curiously, Peled chose to begin his “dessert course” with the music of Ludwig van Beethoven. He began with the WoO 46 set of seven variations on the duet “Bei Männern, welch Liebe fühlen” from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 620 opera The Magic Flute. Beethoven wrote this piece in 1801, by which time he had already begun to establish his reputation as a serious composer; but this was also a time when much of his music reflected a keen sense of wit. There is no shortage of wit in these variations, much of which seems to suggest that Beethoven wanted to show that he could be more clever than his teacher Joseph Haydn in such matters. There is also one “in” joke for those who know Mozart’s opera: The cello drops into a low register, suggesting that Sarastro has shown up to tell Papageno that it is his own turn to sing with Pamina! This suggests that the rollicking coda is actually a jolly trio for the three of them (having nothing to do with Mozart’s conception of any of the characters).
Beethoven was followed by three short pieces by Casals’ personal friend, Gabriel Fauré. These were the Opus 24 “Élégie,” the Opus 78 “Sicilienne” (an arrangement of music Fauré had written for Maurice Maeterlinck’s play Pelléas et Mélisande), and the Opus 77, which Fauré had just wanted to call a piece for cello. His publisher had other ideas, though; and the piece was published with the title “Papillon” (butterfly), much to Fauré’s dislike. Peled seems to have sided with the publisher, however, comparing the brevity of the piece to the short life span of the butterfly.
This was followed by Casals’ arrangement of the third movement from Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 590 organ pastorale. This movement was written only for the manuals and involves little more than an elaborate melodic line with chordal accompaniment. The melodic line went, of course, to the cello; and Casals seems to have added a bit more flesh to the accompaniment than Bach had originally intended. To be fair, however, that was how many of Casals’ contemporaries were playing their Bach in the early twentieth century. The dessert course then concluded with a vigorous Allegro Appassionato movement in B minor by Camille Saint-Saëns (Opus 43), a final flourish of dexterity to wrap up an extended course of sweets, all served up with gracious delight by both Peled. (Cassidy-Polera, on the other hand, had a somewhat disturbing habit of launching into a selection before the audience had completed its applause for that piece’s predecessor. This almost seemed to reflect a caustic attitude that the audience was there to applaud, rather than to listen.)
However, this was not the end of the evening. Peled added an “appendix,” which was not part of Casals’ program. Rather, it was a solo cello piece the Lera Auerbach wrote for him based on one of Casals’ own pieces, which was an encore favorite, “El cant dels Ocells” (the song of the birds). Auerbach called her own piece La Suite dels Ocells (the suite of the birds); and it was, indeed, a suite of cross-fertilizations between Casals’ theme and many of the motifs from the Bach solo cello suites, which figured so significantly in Casals repertoire and his teaching technique. (Since the composition was a suite, the program book could have been a bit more helpful in enumerating the individual movement or at least stating how many there were.) Peled’s performance was the West Coast premiere of Auerbach’s piece, and it made for an absorbing reflection of the relationship between past and present.
The reader should have observed by now that nothing yet has been said about the first half of Peled’s recital. The “main course” of the “meal” was, of course, one of those Bach’s suites, BWV 1009 in C major. Sadly, this was the greatest disappointment of the evening. There was almost no sense of the clarity of execution that one could enjoy in the recordings that Casals made of the Bach suites. (He could also be very demanding about clarity as a teacher.) Furthermore, there was little sense that each of the movements following the opening prelude was a dance, as significant in its use of rhythm as in the interplay between a melodic line and a bass line, all on a single instrument.
More in keeping with the Casals tradition was the opening selection, August Lindner’s reworking of George Frideric Handel’s HWV 287 oboe concerto in G minor as a sonata for cello and piano. This music was thick with nineteenth-century rhetoric. Handel was so barely recognizable that the composer specification in the program really should have been hyphenated (Handel-Lindner). Cassidy-Polera approached her accompaniment as if she were playing Edvard Grieg, thus allowing Peled license to charge full-bore into Lindner’s arrangement with as many flamboyant idioms as he could muster. One gets the impression that Casals must have relished this arrangement with great gusto; and, as long as one was willing to put aside any purist thoughts about Handel, it was easy to share those feelings through Peled’s execution.