At a towering 6’5″, cellist Amit Peled is an inspiring presence. But it isn’t just his height that creates an aura about him; it is his skill and creativity as a cellist and his likeable and passionate character that make Peled such a galvanizing persona in the music world. A student of Bernard Greenhouse, the American-Israeli is now a highly acclaimed and sought-after pedagogue of cello (and currently a professor at the Peabody Institute).
An active performer, Peled collaborates with pianist Alon Goldstein and clarinetist Alexander Fiterstein (Goldstein-Peled-Fiterstein Trio) and also with Goldstein and violinist Ilya Kaler (Tempest Trio). I caught up with him immediately following a recent rehearsal to chat about his world-famous “Casals” Goffriller cello and his experiences working with the instrument.
—Heather K. Scott
Tell us about your instrument.
My primary instrument is Pablo Casals’ 1733 Goffriller cello. (I also own a Vuillaume cello, 1865.) The Casals cello is in perfect condition, and I received it five years ago. When I first had it, it needed repairs after sitting in a case for many years. I took it to Julie Reed-Yeboah in New York City, and she restored it from beginning to end—a new neck and lots of work. Now it is in perfect condition.
How does it compare to your previous primary instrument?
I used to play on a beautiful Guarneri cello, 1689; it was, and is, a magnificent cello. The Guarneri is like Pavarotti: It has a golden-sounding voice, and sings like it isn’t even from this world. The Casals has a very earthy sound, like an old man talking.
What gift does this cello bring to your playing that cannot be found in any other instrument?
To be honest, it really teaches me colors that I didn’t know existed. It’s like when you drive on a highway and your GPS tells you to take an exit—but it doesn’t capture all the available exits, and only shows you one option. This cello captures the ways you didn’t know existed. And your curiosity takes you to all those different routes. This cello tells me to take different paths, and I enjoy that.
What do you know about its history?
Casals bought the cello in London in 1913. But we don’t know who owned it before he bought it. He loved this cello and considered it his best friend. He used it for all of his recordings until he died in 1973. He also had a Vuillaume, which is currently in a museum in Phoenix.
How does the fact that it was Casals’ cello affect you?
I think of Casals when I play pieces that are associated with him, like the Bach Suites or the Dvorak. In fact, it took me awhile to find my own voice, because I thought of him so much. You try to find this earthy, into-the-gut sound that the cello brings and that Casals brought. I always try to blame myself when I don’t get the sound I want, because Casals got such a great sound from this cello. I cannot imitate him—so, instead I have had to find my own sound. If you learn how to not disturb these great instruments, you can find ways that allow you so much more room to grow and create colors. [Sometimes playing an instrument] is like driving a Toyota, which is perfect driving right off of the lot. But, an old car needs a lot more attention. Like a custom-made Rolls-Royce. If you don’t know how to take care of it, the car won’t work well for you. You want to be able to turn it on, warm it up, and drive it on the highway. One really has to learn how to take care of it, so it drives right.
Once you learn how, it is so much more joyful and special. That’s how this instrument is, too.
How does the Casals speak in performance?
When I play it, I feel that this cello holds time and plays dynamics so well. The Casals will let you whisper even more than you thought possible. I call it the “magical piano.” It is somehow so still and yet the sound will cut through a big hall. You don’t have to fear playing high on the D string; it creates beautiful color, and with so many other cellos, you just can’t go there. This cello tells you to go there. This instrument allows me to really explore; when I play it, you hear a much deeper me.
How did you come into possession of this cello?
About five years ago, I played for Ms. Casals, who was in her 80s at the time. A mutual friend of ours, Neale Perl, arranged for me to play for her. It was a good chance to get to know her, and I was grateful to have the opportunity. I started with Bach, and it ended up turning into a bit of a lesson. She gave a lot of comments and asked me to keep playing. So, I played Dvorak, Brahms, and more, and more. She told me she didn’t shut her ears to my playing (as she said she so often did when listening to younger players).
After an hour, she suggested we have a glass of wine; she told me she had Casals’ cello, and invited me to come back sometime and play it. I returned about two months later, and it was like waking up an old person that was peacefully sleeping. The cello wasn’t very responsive at first, but I was in heaven: I got to touch the cello of my hero! A few weeks later, she lent it to me so I could share this instrument with people around the world. One day I may no longer be the driver of this amazing Rolls-Royce. But, for now, I feel so lucky to have it.
What is your instrument’s personality and temperament like?
Once the instrument knows you, it is like a horse getting to know a rider. You start to work together as one. I think the cello and I have found a way to express music that is specific to me and the cello. That’s what makes it so amazing—the cello really allows me to become myself.
It doesn’t have a feminine sound; instead it’s a deep, earthy, masculine-sounding instrument. I think every person can find their own voice through an instrument, and the instrument just enhances the color—that’s what the Casals does for me.
If you were to liken your instrument to a personality, does anyone specific come to mind?
Don Quixote, absolutely. You can have the biggest fantasies and aspirations possible, and this cello just goes there with you. No matter what.
Does your instrument perform betterin certain settings over others?
It reacts better in humid weather, like any instrument. And a good concert hall is great for every cello, if the artist feels comfortable. I played recently in the big hall of the Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria—and it blossomed into the room immediately when I touched the strings. But I feel that way in any good hall.
I think June and July are really the best times for it. I always try to make recordings during those months.
What are the cello’s strengths and limitations?
I think older instruments, like this one, get upset if you travel with them too much. This cello just doesn’t do well. The morning after, when I wake up, the cello will be really angry with me; it has this dry, no-overtone sound. I have to be nice to it, and be slow, and get back in touch with it. And, if I have a dialogue with the Casals and give it a day or two to acclimate, it forgives me and starts performing well again.
If given the ability, what would you talk about with the Casals if the two of you sat down for tea?
I would hope it would tell me that we’re as good of friends as he was with Casals. Like falling in love again and getting remarried. That would be my hope.
My side of the conversation would be to ask how it was to record the Bach Suites with Casals. When no one knew the Suites and Casals recorded them, it must have been amazing to be in that room. I’m going to record the Suites next year, and I’m so curious to know what those first recordings were like.
All About Peled’s Gear
Strings I like the new Pirastro Perpetual strings. They just came out and Pirastro asked me to try them. They’re really warm, very thin, and easy to play. The low C string is quite soft and can really breathe. The sound is very close to gut strings, but metal. I have more room to vibrate on the A string, too. If you play mostly concertos like I do, it is really round and not nasal-y at all. Strings are so personal; someone else may choose something completely different. But I like the way these work for me.
Bows I have three bows: One Panormo made in 1842, which is a terrific bow. It’s very heavy at 95 grams, but I like heavy bows. It’s made from snake wood, which gives more warmth to the sound, too. And I have two Benoît Rolland bows; one is a copy of the Panormo and the other is in Rolland’s style and a bit lighter. Both are wonderful bows. Which bow I use changes with the seasons. I just listen to the sound when I play each morning and then decide.
Case I use a light Accord case. I think it is very safe; we are so careful with it. For example, when I travel I book a seat for it on the plane. I like it because it is light and comfortable to move around with. Whenever I leave the house, I always leave with my cello—it’s never far from my side, so I need to be comfortable carrying it.
Rosin I’m not particular about my rosin. Quite frankly, I often just use what I have or what’s on the concertmaster’s stand. I honestly don’t have a favorite.
Repairs For bigger issues, I take my instrument to Julie Reed-Yeboah. She restored the Casals cello and she’s a real master. But I live in Baltimore, so for little things I go to Perrin & Associates Fine Violins here in the city.