Cellists have a tough time filling concert halls even under the best of circumstances. The audience for classical cello recitals, after all, is relatively small. But the challenges facing cellist Amit Peled, who performed Sunday afternoon at the Blair School of Music’s Turner Recital Hall, seemed especially cruel.
It was bad enough that the weather outside was gorgeously sunny and mild. But Peled’s recital just happened to coincide with the NFL conference championships. Under those circumstances, even a celebrity cellist like Yo-Yo Ma would have struggled to fill an auditorium.
To his credit, Peled did attract a decent-size crowd – Turner Hall looked to be about two-thirds full – and that no doubt was evidence of this artist’s growing reputation. In recent years, the 38-year-old, tousle-haired cellist has received rave reviews for his dramatic, intensely romantic performance style.
But it probably didn’t hurt that Peled and his accompanist, the terrific pianist Alon Goldstein, arrived in Nashville armed with a program of crowd-pleasing masterpieces. Beethoven, Brahms and Chopin were all on the bill. And that kind of fare is usually guaranteed to bring out the die-hard classical fans.
Peled’s opener, Beethoven’s Seven Variations on the Theme “Bei Mannern, welche Liebe fühlen” from Mozart’s Opera The Magic Flute, received a somewhat uneven reading. The cellist’s tone seemed to be a bit hard-edged and steely at first. He perhaps needed time to warm up and acclimate himself to the hall’s acoustics. Certainly, his sound became more burnished as he neared the end of the piece.
That said, Peled needed no extra time to establish his presence onstage. A charismatic performer, Peled clearly enjoyed playing the role of the dreamy, romantic musician. He spent much of his recital playing with eyes closed and head tilted back, looking like an artist trying to commune directly with some unseen muse on the ceiling. His sound was enormous and his gestures were equally big and dramatic – he swung his bow in big arches at the end of phrases, and he lifted his left hand high and ostentatiously above the instrument’s neck when playing open strings.
That kind of playing is thoroughly entertaining, but it has its drawbacks. Peled is so absorbed in what he’s playing at the moment that his reading can lack a sense of direction and greater purpose. His interpretation of each Beethoven variation was immediate and intensely lyrical. But these variations did not always seem like parts of an organic whole.
Peled’s interpretative style was much more satisfying in Brahms’ Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 2 in F major, Op. 99. Goldstein and Peled played this remarkable work with the dramatic sweep of a symphony. There was a spirited interplay between the musicians in the work’s bold outer movements. And they brought a sense of ominous intensity to the scherzo. That contrasted nicely with the “Largo,” which was played with warmth and intimacy.
Chopin’s Sonata for Cello and Piano in G minor, Op. 65, which closed the program, all but demands the sort of romantic reading that is Peled and Goldstein’s specialty. The duo did not disappoint. Goldstein, a fabulous virtuoso in his own right, effortlessly tossed off an orgy of octaves along with cascading passagework. Peled was in his element, digging his bow into the strings to produce a big, juicy tone. Not surprisingly, Peled’s exercise in hothouse romanticism won a rousing ovation.
Peled currently teaches cello at Baltimore’s Peabody Institute, and so he was painfully aware of the afternoon’s most pressing concern: The Baltimore Ravens were about to play the New England Patriots in the conference championship. So Peled and Goldstein opted to play just one short encore, an arrangement for cello and piano of John Williams’ Theme from Schindler’s List. The muse must have enjoyed the duo’s heartfelt interpretation. Baltimore won.