For its first concert of 2017, Chamber Music Wilmington presented a performance by Amit Peled, one of the finest cellists on the stage today. From his beginnings on an Israeli kibbutz to a 6’5″ basketball player, today Amit Peled (ah-MEET PE-led) plays on the priceless cello which once belonged to the legendary Pablo Casals. In addition to appearances worldwide, he is a professor at the Peabody Conservatory, one of America’s most prestigious music institutions.

The performance took place in Beckwith Recital Hall on the campus of the University of North Carolina Wilmington. The hall has superb acoustics, ideal for an intimate program of this kind. The first piece was J.S. Bach’s cello suite in G, BWV 1007. This is the first in a set of six unaccompanied pieces; the whole set stands at the pinnacle of the repertory for the instrument and is a challenge that any cellist who would be an artist must undertake. The suite was treated to a passionate performance which seemed to embody its essence. Peled savored every phrase. In the prelude, he brought forth rich tone and passionate expression. It was played with dynamism and complete involvement. One might perhaps have wished for fewer expressive pauses punctuating the steady beat.

The courante had a delightful bouncy quality and wonderful dynamic contrasts, though this listener could have imagined it faster, for greater contrast. The long-lined song of the sarabande was beautifully sustained, with lovely cadences. The ending gigue was rhythmic and lyrical at the same time. The nuanced phrasing and expressivity of the entire work, its feeling of creating great music in the moment, were memorable.

The following work was Five Pieces on Folk Themes for cello and piano, written in 1950 by the Georgian composer Sulkhan Tsintadze. This set had greatly contrasting moods, all brought forth with what seemed like sheer spontaneity. The first had impassioned long-line cantabile expression and beautiful high-range playing. This was also the first music in which Peled was joined by his superb accompanist Noreen Polera. Together they were a subtle duo whose sound fit together in complete synergy. The chime-like sounds on the piano were especially evocative.

The second movement, evoking a folk guitar, was entirely pizzicato. Peled seemed to take great pleasure in playing this, and brought most excellent phrasing to the lines played without any use of the bow. The wedding dance which followed was exuberant and the lullaby after that was deeply reflective. Once again, there was beautiful expression in the high range of the instrument. The highly rhythmic dance which ended the set brought the first half to an exciting conclusion.

After the intermission, Peled turned to the Arpeggione Sonata, D. 821, by Schubert. The performance was pure song, of the greatest expression and beauty. The first notes, played exquisitely by Polera, created a soulful mood which carried into the cello’s first statement of the theme and sustained through the entire work. There were fabulously whisper-soft passages – projected flawlessly by Beckwith’s resonant acoustics – and most expressive harmonic changes, brought forth by the piano in perfect tonal balance. The cello tone was surpassingly rich. The ending of the first movement was intensely nostalgic and wistful, the expression in the cello so palpable that it was almost impossible not to hear a singer emoting heartfelt words.

Though Schubert was both a classicist and a romantic, this performance was pure romanticism, expression, soul, and expansive rubato which seemed to grow right out of the moment. One could imagine more variety of tempo, which would have given greater contrast among the movements. But the beauty of the playing was such that one simply savored every moment. One such moment was the exquisite transition from the second to third movements, which held the listener suspended. Another was the return of the main theme in the third, which was haunting.

The program ended with Tarantella by the cellist-composer David Popper. Peled played this diversionary music with complete virtuoso aplomb. As in all the other music, he seemed to utterly enjoy each phrase and nuance, even through the elaborate technical effusions. He is an absolute master of the bow as well of fingerwork. No matter how great the challenges, he seemed to just have fun. The middle interlude was played with his trademark rich tone and ample rubato. The audience responded to this exciting ending piece with enthusiasm.

Along with extraordinary playing, Peled treated the audience to a fair quantity of spoken introduction to the pieces. These were informative and entertaining, and helped enliven his music making still further. He has a charismatic personality which draws listeners into the performance about to take place. This is the kind of presentation which could do much to draw new fans to concert music. For anyone present this evening, it was all an experience to remember.