Pablo Casals’ 1733 Goffriller cello is the crown jewel of cellos
One thing unites these two cellists from opposite ends of the Mediterranean: a 1733 Goffriller.
Peled, a virtuoso performer who was born on an Israeli kibbutz and studied with Bernard Greenhouse, one of Casals’ most famous students, is the latest cellist to be granted use of the magnificent instrument Casals acquired in 1913 for a reported 18,000 francs.
The instrument recently underwent a year-long refurbishment.
Casals called it “my best friend.”
Peled calls it his “Pablo.”
Because of its illustrious pedigree, you can call it the crown jewel of cellos. “The 1733 Goffriller cello is a great work in and of itself, but its long association with Casals adds a dimension of historical provenance that places the instrument in a higher cultural context,” says Kerry Keane, head of musical instruments at Christie’s auction house. “It was Casals’ conduit for his artistic expression.”
Is it priceless?
“I think it would be safe to say that it would cause great excitement should it ever be sold,” Keane says. Peled doesn’t own the instrument—it’s on loan from Marta Casals Istomin, who at age 20 married the 80-year-old maestro, her teacher, in 1957.
Through an arrangement with a benefactor, Peled already had been using—and still uses—a 1689 cello made by Andrea Guarneri. “I love that cello. It’s a great cello. It became my voice,” Peled says. “I’m really attached to it, but it’s very interesting to [also] have the Goffriller.” “I feel very lucky,” he continues. “The Guarneri is like Pavarotti, gorgeous coloring and voice. This cello [the Pablo] has a tenor quality to it, but the sound quality is more robust. It’s a person—it’s just able to shout, it’s able to sing.”
Because the Guarneri is small, Peled says, concertgoers would often comment about how he dwarfs the instrument. “I got sick of it, that people made this comment all the time,” he says. “It was never about the sound, it was about the size of the cello.”
Upon a recommendation from mutual friend Neale Perl, Peled played for Casals Istomin in a private session at her Washington DC apartment more than two years ago. “He thought maybe she would know somebody with a big cello, somebody who could help me to have a big Montagnana or would fit my size,” Peled says. “And, of course, I said, I would love to.”
The 45-minute playing session turned into an informal lesson.
“She started giving me comments,” Peled recalls. “She wanted to hear more and more, and pieces that I didn’t prepare. So I played and played. It was wonderful. She says, ‘You’re such an amazing musician.’ And, then, she says, ‘Let’s have a glass of wine. And we did, and then she says, ‘If you wanted to come and try it, you could.’”
The tryout on “it” was at an apartment in New York. “I was scared and nervous because of her [Casals Istomin] and because of the cello,” Peled says. “You open the case and you see this cello. You don’t just see the cello. You see the history of the cello in the 20th century in front of your eyes. I opened the case and I started hearing the Bach Suites or the Dvorak or the trio recordings, all these stories and the ‘Song of the Birds’ [Casals’ signature piece from his native Catalonia] and the connection to Greenhouse, who was my teacher, studying with him. It all blew up in my face just seeing the cello. And then, I could smell the smell of his pipe. You could really smell it, so the presence of him was really evident there.”
Peled impressed Casals Istomin enough that she decided to entrust the Goffriller to him. “He really understood or felt the way this instrument works,” she says.
After passing the test, Peled joined the ranks of such cellists as the late David Soyer, Timothy Eddy, and Matt Haimovitz, who have had the privilege of using it.
“It’s something that I decided to do because the cello needs to be played, and I felt this was a way in which the maestro would love to have it happen that this instrument would be kept alive by a younger generation of cellists,“ the 78-year-old Casals Istomin says. “I just choose a person that I think deserves to do it, that it will help in a particular phase of his career, so that they’ll have to have an understanding of the instrument, an understanding of music-making by Casals.”
Like the Guarneri, the Goffriller isn’t that big. Peled uses the longest endpin he could find—18 inches. He also changed how he holds the cello, adopting Casals’ position of resting it on his left knee instead of having both knees straddle the lower bouts. That intensifies the cello’s resonance, he says.
“It goes into your guts, you feel it inside of you,” Peled says, referring not only to the performer, but the concertgoer. “This has something you can’t touch.”
But the Pablo does touch the audience.
“Almost every place I play with it, there’s always a personal story from somebody who heard Casals play the cello, from somebody who knew somebody who knew Casals,” Peled says.
He gives two recent examples. After a performance this summer in Montana, a woman told him she’s the great-granddaughter of a pianist who played with Casals. She then showed him a photo of her great-grandfather and Casals. And in Loveland, Colorado, a man produced pictures that his father—an Army photographer based in Puerto Rico—had taken of Casals there.
The use of the cello was supposed to be for about two years, but within three months, Peled noticed a problem with the fingerboard—it was unusually low—and Casals Istomin decided it was time to take it to a shop for what she now calls a “thorough revision.”
The surgery was performed by New York luthier Julie Reed-Yeboah. “The idea was to stabilize it because Amit had been playing it, and it was losing power,” Reed-Yeboah says. “It was not able to withstand the pressures that were put on it, just from normal playing, the back was stressed out because the neck was coming down.”
The challenge, she says, was to make sure the “sound that everybody knows” from the numerous Casals recordings would not be damaged. The work was completed in September. “Amit says it sounded much better . . . stronger and clearer,” Reed-Yeboah says. “When Marta heard it, she said, she recognized its voice, which was a big relief.”
“Thank God it worked!” Casals Istomin says. “She did a wonderful job, and the cello is in great health, and hopefully it will be played for many years to come.”
While the Goffriller was out of commission, Peled missed an opportunity to play it during the centenary year of Casals’ acquisition of the instrument. Peled, who is on the faculty of Johns Hopkins’ Peabody Institute, has planned a recital on the Pablo on February 12 at the Baltimore school, exactly 100 years after Casals played there.
He will perform the same program: Handel’s Sonata in G minor; the third Bach Cello Suite in C; Beethoven’s seven variations on a theme from Mozart’s Magic Flute; Faure’s “Elegie,” “Papillion,” and “Sicilienne;” a Bach aria arranged by Casals; and Saint-Saens’ “Allegro Appassionato.”
“Recitals were huge entertainment back then. People would go after work and would be entertained by those [shorter] pieces,” Peled says. “Today, it has become this heavy thing, like three big sonatas. It’s tiring, even for a musician, and I see the reaction of the public. One big sonata and a lot of the aperitifs and desserts—and people love it.”
But Casals would also perform the Dvorak Concerto with piano, Peled notes. “Why not? It’s a beautiful piece and you can hear it from close-by rather than in a big hall where you can’t hear the cello,” he says. “Composers, when they wrote these pieces, they had this in mind that you could play them also in a salon with piano. I feel that maybe one reason to have this cello is to try to go back to what these great masters did, to try to do the same programs.”
Peled doesn’t know when he’ll have to give back the Pablo. But, he says, he has concert bookings with the cello for the next two years, including in July in El Vendrell, where Casals’ body was returned and buried 34 years after he exiled himself from Franco’s fascist Spain. He also wants to record the Casals homestead recital on the Pablo.
“I’m hoping that it will be a journey that will hopefully not end soon,” he says.
Riding ‘The Pablo’
- Amit Peled has likened Casals’ cello to “a wild horse ready to run.” The restored Goffriller bears a misleading label that reads “Carlo Bergonzi 1733 Cremona.”
- The top is made of four pieces of pine with irregular grain at the center. The back is constructed of two pieces of maple with flames of large and irregular widths.
- The instrument measures 75.10 cm (length) by 37.70 cm and 44.40 cm (widths) and has been reduced in size except for the f-holes and the maple scroll.
- Peled uses two bows made by Benoit Rolland and David Samuels; both are heavy (more than 90 grams). He uses Evah Pirazzi strings.
Marta Montáñez Martínez was a 15-year-old cello student when she met the great Pablo Casals. Within five years, she became his student and, at age 20, his wife. They were married until his death 16 years later at age 96. She later married the great pianist Eugene Istomin, who died in 2003. Her music career has been as a cello teacher and music administrator, including a stint as president of the Manhattan School of Music. But she avoided a career as a cello performer. Why?
“Well listen, when you have a cellist like Pablo Casals next to you, what would you do?” she asks rhetorically. “It’s not only that, because he was always very encouraging. but it is the fact that he had a fantastic life. He was involved in so many things. He did so many different aspects of his life . . . that I felt that my real duty was to help him because his work was more important than mine.”