Can a particular instrument possess a special magic? On one level, of course not; there’s no such thing as magic. Still, the subtitle of the new CAP Records album To Brahms, with Love: From the Cello of Pablo Casals signifies something real. Playing Brahms’s two cello sonatas accompanied by pianist Noreen Polera, Amid Peled draws an ineffable combination of lightness and warmth from the 1733 Goffriller cello that Pablo Casals owned and for decades made his recordings with.
Casals recorded both sonatas in the 1930s using this very instrument. As a young man, he had performed the F major Sonata No. 2 Op. 99 for Brahms himself. Peled is also linked to Casals through his teacher, Bernard Greenhouse of the Beaux Arts Trio, once a Casals pupil. These links from composer to performer seem to have inspired Peled to lofty heights of interpretive power on the new recording. Brahms’s cello sonatas are among the greatest works of the Romantic canon, and Peled proves one of their premiere interpreters today.
Both Peled and Polera make technique seem invisible through the impassioned low notes of the first movement’s main theme in the E minor Sonata No. 1 Op. 38, the second movement’s feathery staccatos and wonderful unison passages, the march-like rhythms of the finale that deepen and expand into storms of emotion. The recording’s slightly distant quality (perhaps from having been made in a church rather than a studio) indeed evokes memories of listening to Casals’s old recordings, bringing me that much closer to the composer’s own time. Twenty-first-century cello recordings are typically mic’d so intimately that the sound floods the ear in a way that can express great beauty but can also puncture the illusion that we’re in the musicians’ presence. Here, though, close your eyes and you might be in the room with them.
No one has ever integrated piano and cello more snugly – I’m tempted to say more perfectly – than Brahms did in Sonata No. 2. Its first movement, more cerebral and experimental than Op. 38 but no less charged with feeling, demands musicians of the highest individual and collective caliber. Peled and Polera are fully up to leading us on the journey. Peled finds a slightly cloudy and exquisitely delicate tone in the cello’s high register during the more subdued Adagio, yet will vibrate your room with his pizzicatos, provided you listen through good speakers. The Beethovenian drama of the Allegro Passionato third movement bristles with energy, and cellist and pianist are in marvelous sync through the finale’s ever-changing rhythms.
In advance of its June 1, 2018 release, To Brahms with Love is available for pre-order (with free shipping) from CAP Records. Thereafter it will be available at Amazon, iTunes, Spotify and more.