Any performance of the Bach cello suites becomes something special. A performance on the instrument that made them famous becomes something more than that.
Cellist Amit Peled played the first three suites Monday evening at the Church of the Holy Spirit Episcopal in Orleans, to open this summer’s Meeting House Chamber Music Festival in style. But the story of this remarkable player, his historic cello, and the suites, goes back centuries.
Bach wrote the six solo works around 1720, but it wasn’t until almost two hundred years later that a 13-year-old Spanish cellist re-discovered them in a Barcelona bookstore. Pablo Casals performed them occasionally during his long career, but waited until he was 60 to record them.
Once he did record them, in 1936, every cellist had to perform them.
The suites are now some of the most recognizable music in the world. Peled, who inherited the use of Casals’s famous 1733 Gofriller cello in 2012, is about to embark on his own recording of the set. He shared the music, and his famous instrument, with the sold-out audience, interspersing the first three suites with movements from Ernest Bloch’s “Jewish Life.”
Perhaps only a gifted musician like Peled can appreciate what it means to use an instrument like the famed Gofriller. He referred repeatedly to finding “its voice,” as well as his own, and to “not getting in the way of the instrument—not strangling it.” Like all great interpretations of the suites, Peled’s performance was personal—“his own voice.”
The suites demand it. Unlike most scores, the suites give only minimal instructions to the performer. Apart from a few trills, and slurs, no other markings are indicated—nothing about loud or soft, or about specific tempo.
Just the musical line. The beauty lies in Bach creating polychordal music for a single player—creating the illusion that multiple voices are being heard at once. Just how fast, or slow, or how loud or soft, those voices sing—that’s up to the player.
Peled’s choices were subtle. Overall, his playing was reserved. Readings of the suites can be very fast, and loudly histrionic; his playing was controlled, meditative. It sounded like an artist at peace with something challenging and complex.
The first suite, in G major, was highlighted by his take on the Sarabande, the slowest, Spanish sounding movement of the set. Peled read it as one long line, like a dance that sweeps evenly all around a room without a pause.
He did the same in the second suite, but this time in the fastest of the movements, the Courante, racing through that with the same intent, but an altogether different pace. Peled’s ideas in the C major suite, which brought the program to a close, were the most expansive, suiting the music. He took more liberties overall with tempo and dynamic range—especially in the first of the Bourrée movements.
The short Bloch pieces were much more than just filler. Peled also has developed a personal feeling for these works, especially notable in the final “Prayer,” which ranged from the highest register to the lowest, open strings, all of it played as one sinuous, legato line.
Peled performed the entire program from memory, and played most of it with eyes closed, feeling and living out the music rather than just producing it. It was a thoughtful, genuinely personal beginning to the festival, which continues with weekly performances through July 23.
The next Meeting House Chamber Music program will Monday, June 25 at the Church of the Holy Spirit Episcopal in Orleans. Tickets ($25, under 18 free) are available at www.meetinghousemusic.org or by calling (508) 896-3344.