Saturday, 16 January 2016

Elizabeth, Piatigorsky, Heifetz & rare repertoire - an encounter with cellist Raphael Wallfisch

Raphael Wallfisch - photo Ben. Ealovega
Raphael Wallfisch - photo Ben. Ealovega
The Linbury Studio Theatre at the Royal Opera House isn't the most obvious place to expect to find the distinguished cellist Raphael Wallfisch, and certainly not sharing a dressing room with ballet dancer Carlos Acosta, and baritone David Kempster, but all three are appearing in Will Tuckett's Elizabeth a full-length work combining dance, music and theatre exploring the life and loves of Queen Elizabeth I. I met up with Raphael to talk about Elizabeth, how it feels to accompany dance with a solo cello, the Bach cello suites, his interest in recovering lost and neglected music and much else.

Elizabeth tells the story of the loves in Queen Elizabeth I's life, compressing a huge historical timeline into flashbacks which start and end with the dying queen. Alasdair Middleton's text uses Queen Elizabeth's letters and writings from the period tell the story, covering a huge timespan in a way which Raphael describes as 'cleverly done'. An actor plays the older Elizabeth whilst the dancer Zenaida Yanowsky plays the younger one, with Carlos Acosta as a sequence of her lovers.

The music is written by Martin Yates and uses just Raphael's cello and David Kempster's baritone, taking themes from Elizabethan music but seeing them through a contemporary lense. The tune Greensleeves features quite heavily, not just the full tune but individual cells are used throughout and even the double-dotted opening figures of the piece are based on the tune. Raphael explains to me how the music uses the cello's flexibility; at times sounding like a lute, at times like a drum, at times singing as well as accompanying the singer and providing music for dance.

Elizabeth. Zenaida Yanowsky, Carlos Acosta ©ROH, 2016. Photographed by Andrej Uspenski
Elizabeth. Zenaida Yanowsky, Carlos Acosta
©ROH, 2016. Photographed by Andrej Uspenski
Which brings us to one of the most fascinating points of the work, that without a conductor Raphael must co-ordinate his playing with the dancers. He shows me his score, and the not uncomplex music is littered with extra-musical markings as phrases must be timed to the movement of a foot. And Raphael talks about fitting of the music to the drama being rather like film music.

I was curious whether he had done anything like it before, and whether he enjoyed the experience. He response was a definitive yes, he had loved every minute of it and it had been rather different from anything he done before. Raphael's involved started two years ago when the piece was put together rather fast for a 2013 gala performance in the Painted Hall at Old Royal Naval College. For this revival the piece has been tightened, and Raphael talks about there being more interaction between the characters and even his page turner gets involved at one point.

Raphael got involved with the project because he is a friend of composer Martin Yates. Martin is a conductor and composer and has worked extensively at the Royal Opera House (he arranged the music for Carlos Acosta's production of Don Quixote).  And he is also a friend of choreographer and director Will Tuckett and librettist Alasdair Middleton.

As something of a one-off piece I as curious as to whether it might be done again. Raphael said that he hoped so, that he had loved doing it and the roles could be learned by other dancers but that for someone else to learn the cello part he would need to write out a new part, interpreting all his scribbles which cover the music. Then he smiles and says that he ought to do so.

Elizabeth. Zenaida Yanowsky, Carlos Acosta ©ROH, 2016. Photographed by Andrej Uspenski
Elizabeth. Zenaida Yanowsky, Carlos Acosta
©ROH, 2016. Photographed by Andrej Uspenski
Arising from Elizabeth, Raphael says that he would love to do something with dance. One piece that he is looking forward to is that composer Jonathan Dove is writing a piece for him, using cello, baritone and orchestra. But he really likes the combination of cello and dance, and certainly enjoyed working with the choreographer Will Tuckett.

While performing the piece, Raphael has to take into account a lot of different factors including the speed of the dancers, with Raphael having to get used to the mood of the dancer's gesture in the same way he would judge the mood of an upbeat. Working with dancers involves a whole series of different techniques and he has to work the the different speeds of the movements.

And he has found that this has helped him with practising the Bach suites for solo cello, which have a significant dance element to them. Having been involved in Elizabeth, Raphael finds it inspiring and now informs his playing and he can imagine being part of the dance in the Bach. And that a ballet using the Bach suites could be fun.

The mention of Bach's suits leads us to a discussion of recent recordings of the works and Raphael comments that there are just too many recordings of them, after all Casals waited until he was 60 before he thought about recording them. But realism comes into it too, and he admits that the suites for solo cello have the advantage of being cheap for a young performer to record. The process of recording is dauntingly expensive and all you need for the solo cello suites is a chair. But recording the Bach suites isn't a priority for Raphael. Rather depreciatingly he says if he recorded the suites it would simply be about him and there are too many good things which need recording.

One of his current projects is a recording on CPO Records of works by composers banned by the Third Reich. These will include music by Hans Gal, Franz Reizenstein, Berthod Goldschmidt and a concerto by Maria Castelnuovo-Tedesco which was written with Gregor Piatigorsky, the great cellist with whom Raphael studied. This is the kind of repertoire which Raphael wants to record. Also for CPO he will be recording the Andrzej Panufnik concerto with the Konzerthaus Orchestra Berlin.

Trio Shaham Erez Wallfisch - photo Hagai Shaham
Trio Shaham Erez Wallfisch - photo Hagai Shaham
He has recorded the Brahms trios with his Trio Shaham Erez Wallfisch (with Hagai Shaham and Arnon Erez) for Nimbus Alliance. The three piano trios are being paired on the disc with Brahms' double concerto. The Piano Trio No. 3 and the concerto share adjacent opus numbers (101 and 102), which Raphael finds rather satisfying. The disc will be coming out this summer. The trio will be performing Brahms Piano Trio No. 2 in C major Op. 87 alongside music by Beethoven, Arensky and Rachmaninov at the Wigmore Hall on 20 January 2016 in a 90th birthday concert for Raphael's mother the cellist Anita Lasker-Wallfisch.

With Martin Yates he is recording Cyril Scott's First Cello Concerto for Dutton Epoch, a work which Raphael prefers to the better known second concerto. Still with English composers, he is recording music by Havergal Brian and Alan Bush. For Lyrita he is recording Rebecca Clarke's own transcription of her Viola Sonata which will be paired with an unpublished work of Clarke's for cello and piano. Clarke was unhappy with the first performance so the work remained unpublished and Raphael is enthusiastic that not only is the work being issued on CD (due out later this year) but is being published as well. He likes bringing back things but which are unjustly neglected.

Raphael Wallfisch - photo TrauteScheuermann
Raphael Wallfisch - photo TrauteScheuermann
When I ask what made him play the cello, he comments that he feels that you don't choose instruments, they choose you. When very young he tried the violin and piano and did not take to either of them, though admits that his father (the distinguished pianist Peter Wallfisch) was always at the piano and so young Raphael couldn't get to it. His mother, Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, played that cello and so he tried it, and cello playing seemed to grow in his life. And he laughs saying it certainly it was worth the trouble to carry the instrument around.

When young he wasn't necessarily going to be a musician. Between the ages of 8 and 14 his passion was the theatre and instead of playing in youth orchestra he was involved in the British Drama League, participating in their Junior Drama League with courses in the summer holidays. Looking back, he feels that it was good experience for him being on stage and having to learn parts. But he finally discovered that his school friends were better actors than he.

Later he studied in California with the great cellist Gregor Piatigorsky and during this period the great violinist Jascha Heifetz was also teaching. Their classes mixed and they played with their teachers, there were parties with them playing to guests. Heiftez was such a colossal figure, and Raphael would alone with him at his house, making music with him. An experience he clearly still remembers and he didn't take it for granted at the time.

When I ask him what his favourite piece is, like many musicians he says it is whatever he is working on. Beyond this, he named the fifth Beethoven sonata, notably the slow movement. He finds it incredibly modern and he adores it. But there is a huge amount of music and he loves the great concertos and tries to get them all played. He names the Prokofiev Sinfonia Concertante, a work which has not been done at the Proms, not even by Rostropovich, so we must hope he gets his chance.

You can next hear Raphael on 20 January 2016 when he will be performing with his Trio Shaham Erez Wallfisch at the Wigmore Hall in a 90th birthday concert for his mother the cellist Anita Lasker-Wallfisch in Brahms Piano Trio No. 2 in C major Op. 87 alongside music by Beethoven, Arensky and Rachmaninov.

Elsewhere on this blog:

No comments:

Post a comment

Popular Posts this month