New CDs from Washington Area Cellist Amit Peled and Pianist Thomas Pandolfi

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It must be time for dessert! Two new recordings by prominent local classical artists coincidentally use the metaphor of desserts-after-a-meal in their concepts. They both provide delightful summertime listening while simultaneously exploring meaty musical ideas.

Cellist Amit Peled’s new CD, Collage, spends its first half hour on a large and ravishing sonata from a master puller-of-heartstrings, Sergei Rachmaninoff. Then it heads off into a blend of dances and folk tunes requiring innovative cello technique, including one number where the cellist strums the instrument with both hands – something I’ve never heard before.

Pianist Thomas Pandolfi’s new CD, After the Applause, is designed as an entire collection of desserts from the first track on. The title refers to everything Pandolfi plays for encores at his live concerts, and its scope is as diverse as Pandolfi’s huge crossover repertory, from Frederic Chopin to Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Enjoy this midyear CD review, and note these artists’ increasingly prestigious roles on the local concert stage in the upcoming 2015-2016 season.

Collage by cellist Amit Peled
‘Collage’ by cellist Amit Peled

Sergei Rachmaninoff’s monumental Piano Concerto No. 2, composed in 1901, was just the beginning of one of his most creative periods. He immediately followed it up with the only sonata he ever composed for a non-keyboard solo instrument accompanied by the piano. Happily for Peabody Institute cello faculty member and Maryland-based musical personality Amit Peled, that piece is the Rachmaninoff Sonata in G minor for Cello and Piano.

Mr. Peled is the perfect ambassador for this composition, which he calls the main course or “big steak” of his new CD called Collage. Mr. Peled has a big tone on the cello, one that does not become thin or leathery but stays glowing in the instrument’s higher ranges. This sort of attractive assertiveness is required for the Rachmaninoff sonata, where the composer – himself one of the greatest pianists of all time – practically turns the piano part into a substitute orchestra rather than just a tinkling table-setter for the cello soloist.

Although the opening movement is in a minor key, there’s little doubt of its essentially hopeful nature. You can practically hear the cello’s yearning tones ringing off the walls as pianist Noreen Polera rips arpeggios and cascading chords around Mr. Peled’s melody. The second movement presents the most tension in the sonata, with Mr. Peled digging into the instrument’s low C string for a menacing rhythm against some foreboding lines from the piano. The third movement makes the turn into primarily major keys and, while marked more slowly, has plenty of forward motion for what the CD’s liner notes cite as “songs without words for the cello.”

That leaves room for a great deal of inventive interplay between cello and piano in the 12½-minute final movement, which starts with a straightforwardly sunny melody in G major and features many virtuoso episodes both in complete collaboration and in solo exposition by the two musicians. Pulling that off among a pair of top performers – Noreen Polera is so valued as a collaborative pianist that she is appearing with two different featured soloists in the 2015-2016 season of Washington Performing Arts – is no mean feat. Peled, whose entertaining stage personality was on display during a historic concert at Peabody last February, had some fun describing that process in this brief video about Collage:

And no one can doubt the amount of both work and fun that went into the making of the “desserts” of the CD. First up after Rachmaninoff are Five Pieces on Folk Themes by a 20th-century composer from the country of Georgia named Sulkhan Tsintsadze. In the opening folk song, Mr. Peled’s cello depicts peasants carrying hay uphill with sorrowful, heavy steps. The most amazing piece is the second one, in which Tsintsadze has the cellist imitate a lute-like instrument from Georgia called the chonguri by plucking the instrument with both hands. The third piece makes the cello sound a bit like an accordion in a folk tune that accompanies a native form of wrestling, believe it or not. The last two pieces are a lullaby and a whirling wedding dance.

In a final “berry” on top, Peled goes to town with a piece that all serious cellists study but few can really play – a Tarantella by 19th-century Austrian cellist/composer David Popper. If you think “virtuoso” is a term that can easily apply to pianists and violinists but you can’t picture it for a cellist, you will after hearing this final five-minute piece on Collage. No doubt that will also be on display when Mr. Peled appears under the auspices of Washington Performing Arts at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater on November 8, 2015, with Ms. Polera at the piano. Golden tones and cello fireworks are pretty much both guaranteed that Sunday afternoon.

After the Applause by pianist Thomas Pandolfi
After the Applause by pianist Thomas Pandolfi

It’s not uncommon for rising classical artists to reach a point in their recording ventures where they’ll issue an album of “encores” or miniatures they like to perform at the end of concert evenings. Few if any, however, do what Thomas Pandolfi does in his new CD, After the Applause – tuck purely classical bon-bons in the middle, sandwiched by a big opening fantasy right out of Broadway and a closing medley of American patriotic songs.

Pandolfi’s opening Phantom Phantasy is a representation in sound of what his local fans know of him live – a Juilliard-trained pianist with unabashed showmanship. Right in the middle of Pandolfi’s stylings on the title song of The Phantom of the Opera plus “Music of the Night” and “All I Ask of You,” you can practically hear the piano descending into the depths of the Paris Opéra. Pandolfi has a way of making a grand piano sound like it must have 188 keys, not just 88. And the closing patriotic flourish of the CD in Pandolfi’s America Fantasy is right out of the playbook of legendary 20th-century pianist Vladimir Horowitz, who loved to work up crowds in Middle America and elsewhere with glitzy pianistic stylings of flag-waving songs.

What comes in between is an amazingly diverse mix of wild virtuosity and sublime songfulness. Pandolfi puts one of the most entertaining two and a quarter minutes of piano music you are ever likely to encounter right on the second track of the CD. It’s a musical merry-go-round called Dizzy Fingers by an early American jazz and ragtime pianist with the marvelous name of Zez Confrey. Pandolfi provided the extra treat of having the track videotaped so you can see what the CD is like (and take pride in the fact that it was recorded locally, at St. Luke’s Catholic Church in McLean). I dare you to stop watching this YouTube video in the middle!

In the rest of the album, Pandolfi basically alternates what really are some of classical music’s most emblematic “miniatures” – such as Franz Liszt’s Liebestraum and Claude Debussy’s Clair de Lune, plus one of Chopin’s most familiar nocturnes – with some ambitious music that could easily slot in the announced part of a concert program, not merely “after the applause” at the end. Most striking are a lilting but deceptively sophisticated grand waltz by French composer Déodat de Séverac, and an Adagio originally composed for oboe and string orchestra but lovingly adapted for the piano by another favorite 20th century American piano personality, Earl Wild.

Smack in the middle of the CD is a 10-minute virtuoso masterpiece, Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12. And sprinkled around the album are songs by George Gershwin in some of Gershwin’s – and Pandolfi’s own – virtuoso stylings.

That’s especially apt because Mr. Pandolfi, who described his attraction to Gershwin in my interview with him last fall, has the honor of opening the 2015-2016 season of the National Philharmonic at The Music Center at Strathmore as soloist in Gershwin’s Concerto in F. A hearing at home of After the Applause is a wonderful warm-up to this season-opening event in September.

Running Times: Collage, 57:43. After the Applause, 75:37.

For more information on their upcoming live concerts and events, see the performance schedules for Amit Peled and Thomas Pandolfi.

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David Rohde
David Rohde is a pianist, conductor, vocal teacher, music arranger, and arts writer. David has worked extensively in musical theater in Washington and around the mid-Atlantic region. He’s been music director and conductor for shows ranging from the Riverside Center for the Performing Arts’ 2016 production of Oklahoma! in Fredericksburg to pop/rock musicals like Evita, Next to Normal and Blood Brothers in the D.C. suburbs. His other journeys around the musical genres have included performing a piano recital series at the National Lutheran Home, accompanying singers in repertoire from bel canto opera to contemporary Broadway, and fronting a band one night in Rockville for the late Joan Rivers. David is a 2-time recipient and 8-time nominee for the WATCH Award for Outstanding Music Direction, and he loves watching the actors and musicians he’s worked with “make it” when they pursue regional and national performing arts careers.

1 COMMENT

  1. Bravo to David for bringing these beautiful works to the Community. His metaphors leave me hungry to explore the full table, lingering first and last over the desserts. Thank you for this!

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