Saturday 12 October 2019

Voices in the Wilderness: cellist Raphael Wallfisch on his series of cello concertos by exiled Jewish composers

Raphael Wallfisch (Photo Benjamin Ealovega)
Raphael Wallfisch (Photo Benjamin Ealovega)
When we meet up, cellist Raphael Wallfisch is in the middle of a very busy week, with the start of his Trio Shaham Erez Wallfisch's residency at the Wigmore Hall (beginning their cycle Beethoven piano trios as part of the hall's Beethoven 250 celebrations) and performances of his programme which explores the music of Rebecca Clarke and Ernest Bloch. Whilst I am there to talk about another project, his cycle of recordings of neglected Jewish composers on the German record label cpo, of which four CDs have been issued and a fifth, devoted to the music of Mieczysław Weinberg, is due out later this year. Whilst these fascinating works are the focus of our conversation, though we also touch on Raphael's Rebecca Clarke / Ernest Bloch programme, the influence of Raphael's teacher the great Gregor Piatigorsky, and Raphael's own family.

Under the title Voices in the Wilderness: Cello Concertos by Exiled Jewish Composers, the cpo discs involve works by nine composers, all of whom fled the persecution of the Nazis in the 1930s:

Goldschmidt & Reizenstein - Raphael Wallfisch - CPO
  • Paul Ben-Haim (1897-1984, German born, emigrated to Israel)
  • Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957, Austrian born, moved to the USA)
  • Ernest Bloch (1880-1959, Swiss born, emigrated to USA)
  • Mario Castelnuovo Tedesco (1895-1968, Italian-born, emigrated to USA)
  • Hans Gal (1890-1987, Austrian-born, emigrated to UK)
  • Karl Weigl (1881-1949, Austrian-born, emigrated to USA)
  • Berthold Goldschmidt (1903-1996, German-born, emigrated to UK)
  • Franz Reizenstein (1911-1968, German born, emigrated to UK)
  • Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996, Polish born, emigrated to USSR)   
It is a remarkable project, recording a variety of works, many unknown, by composers who are not well known. In fact, Raphael dreamed it up in his bathroom and was lucky that everything just work. It has involved him in a huge amount of research, unearthing manuscripts and then editing them for performance.
The record company, cpo is based in Osnabrück in Germany and once when Raphael was playing there he visited a Osnabrück, The Felix Nussbaum House, which houses a collection of pictures by Felix Nussbaum. Raphael was struck by the paintings and they have been able to use them on the covers of all of the discs. Felix Nussbaum (1904-1944) was a German-Jewish surrealist painter, and he died in Auschwitz, whilst the composers on the disc are all ones who got out and survived.

Some of the works were even premieres, the cello concerto by Paul Ben-Haim was receiving its first recording, whilst no-one had ever recorded Ernest Bloch's cello version of his trombone concerto (despite cello being the composer's suggested alternative). Raphael feels that there isn't a dud piece in the selection, though Castelnuovo-Tedesco's concerto might be 'a bit on the light side' for some people.

Weigl - Raphael Wallfisch - CPO
The Weigl concerto had never been played. Weigl had a huge success in Austria, but had to flee Vienna for the USA where he started from nothing and struggled.  Raphael heard about the concerto from the conductor Thomas Sanderling, who has recorded some of Weigl's music and Sanderling commented in passing to Raphael that there was a cello concerto and that Raphael should look into it. That planted the seed. The project was not, at first so much a cycle as being open ended, with Raphael seeing what he could find.

To get access to the Weigl, Raphael contacted the composer's family in the USA and eventually discovered that the second movement had been dedicated to Raphael's teacher, Gregor Piatigorsky (a name that crops up quite a bit in our conversation). Castelnuovo-Tedesco also knew Piatigorsky and Castelnuovo-Tedesco's cello concerto was written for him. Surprisingly, no-one else seems to have taken up the work, and Raphael cannot really see why, unless they were put off by the work being a virtuoso vehicle with lots of glamour. Hans Gal's concerto Raphael regards as one of the finest pieces in the cycle, and he had originally heard it in a recording by a colleague and it is a work that he has played in concert.

In another personal connection, the composers Goldschmidt and Reizenstein, both of whom came to the UK, were colleagues of Raphael's parents (his father was the pianist Peter Wallfisch, who was born in Breslau (Wroclaw) and emigrated in 1938, first to Palestine and then to London, and Raphael's mother is the cellist Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, one of the last known surviving members of the Women's Orchestra of Auschwitz) and Raphael knew both the composers. In fact, he had the music for Goldschmidt's concerto for years and kept feeling that he ought to do something with it. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Korngold is the concerto he has played the most whilst he learned the Ben-Haim and Bloch pieces for the recordings.

The project is the sort of thing that Raphael enjoys, he loves the excitement of being on the trail of things which are undeservedly ignored, and he loves the process of learning, of bringing something new out. And this is continuing, he will be performing a new work by Jonathan Dove in 2021 (for baritone, cello and orchestra), and is premiering a new piece by the Tajik Russian composer Tolibkhon Shakhidi at the Cadogan Hall in February 2020.

Ben-Haim, Bloch, Korngold - Raphael Wallfisch - CPO
Though there are other works which he could include, the cpo series has drawn to a conclusion. Raphael feels he has been lucky with the financial side of the recordings. Some were co-productions with the German radio station, Deutschlandfunk Kultur, and he had to find a relatively small amount of money. Over the years, he has recorded other similar works by composers like Matyas Seiber (1905-1960, Hungarian born, emigrated to the UK) and Miklós Rózsa (1907-1995, Hungarian-American), so he feels that the series is greater than just the cpo discs.

One of the subjects that often comes up in conversation when talking about the pieces, is where there is a common 'Jewish sound'. Raphael comments that Paul Ben-Haim, who lived in Palestine and Israel from 1933, created a Middle-Eastern sound with Arab influences mixed subtly with the classical tradition. Bloch did it in his music too (though not with the same sound as Ben-Haim), and then he moved away from a consciously Jewish sound.

Raphael's concert on 25 September 2019 at the Wigmore Hall mixed the music of Bloch with that of Rebecca Clarke, in recreation of the Berkshire Music Competition (held in 1919) where she originally tied for first place with Bloch, but the jury could not believe that the piece (her Viola Sonata) had been written by a woman so it ultimately went to Ernest Bloch. Raphael's Wigmore Hall concert included Clarke's Rhapsody for Cello and Piano alongside Bloch's winning piece, his Suite for Viola and Piano (in a version for cello and piano), which Raphael performed with pianist John York, and Ailish Tynan sang songs by Rebecca Clarke and another British woman composer of the period, Muriel Herbert.

Raphael comments that there is a problem generally programming music by women composers, with a tendency for promoters to feel you 'cannot sell women'. But Raphael is now able to publish Clarke's Rhapsody which will go some way to making the piece more available.

The problems of 'getting stuff out there' is one that he grew up with, with plenty of new pieces passing through the house and composers such as Kenneth Leighton staying with his parents. And it was exploring his father's extensive library, which is now in an archive in Germany, which first set the young Raphael on the trail of exploring new music.

Gal, Castelnuovo-Tedesco - Raphael Wallfisch - CPO
And Raphael's children are continuing the musical tradition, his son Simon is a baritone and cellist [see my interview with Simon], Ben is a composer who does a lot of film music and Joanna is a singer/songwriter who is also into extreme sports, and recent projects have combined the two. She cycled from Portland, Oregon to Santa Monica, California, writing songs and doing gigs along the way, and now she is doing something similar from Sydney to Hobart, in Australia.

As the profession is so precarious and life as a young musician is difficult, something Raphael had seen with his parents and his own career, he had hoped that his children might 'do something sensible', but he is pleased that they are enjoying their careers and successfully making their way in their chosen careers. And in fact Simon assists Raphael with his teaching at the Royal College of Music.

Raphael feels that he was lucky in his teachers throughout his life. Growing up with two parents who were professional musicians he had no illusions about how hard work the life of a professional musician was, and his teachers were similarly pragmatic. He studied with Amaryllis Fleming (the daughter of painter Augustus John and half-sister of writer Ian Fleming, as a cellist her career was somewhat overshadowed by that of Jacqueline Du Pre) for two and a half years, and she was very special. At the age of 16 she sent him to Italy to study with Amadeo Baldovino, and he went to Rome on his own, learned Italian and had a fabulous teacher for what was a very formative few months. Thanks to Fleming, he was well set up when he went to the Royal College of Music, where he studied with Derek Simpson, and then he studied with the great Russian/American cellist Gregor Piatigorsky.

He is thankful that there was nothing like the young musician competitions that there are nowadays, so that when he was a young player he was under no pressure to be in the profession yet, and was able to hear all of the great players of the period. Raphael feels that the way the profession works is that a young player works for the future, keeping on steadily, being a servant of their art and developing.

Simon and Raphael Wallfisch performing together,  Anita Lasker-Wallfisch is in the background left, and the pianist is William Vann (Photo ARD Studio London)
Simon and Raphael Wallfisch performing together,  Anita Lasker-Wallfisch is in the background left
The pianist is William Vann (Photo ARD Studio London)
This was a philosophy instilled in him by Piatigorsky, with whom he studied for two years. This involved two masterclasses per week, as well as a weekly private visit, playing chamber music with violinist Jascha Heifetz at the informal recitals which Piatigorsky held in his home, and working with fellow students, something Piatigorsky encouraged. All those who studied with him and are still around remain very close, and there is a Piatigorsky International Cello Festival in Los Angeles which was started by cellist Ralph Kirshbaum.

Piatigorsky wasn't just a great cellist, for Raphael he was a very special personality and a direct link to composers such as Paul Hindemith, Sergei Prokofiev and William Walton (all of whom wrote cello concertos for him), and Sergei Rachmaninov. One day Raphael was having a lesson at Piatigorsky's house when a letter arrived from William Walton in Ischia. Having written the Cello Concerto for Piatigorsky (who premiered it in Boston in 1957, and recorded it with Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra), the cellist had been keen for Walton to revise the ending, creating something rather more rousing. He had been asking the composer for years and the score had finally arrived; Piatigorsky just had to open it before the lesson could start. And it was not the ending that he had wanted. Raphael has tried the revised ending out in performance and feels that it is not as good as the original.

And it was from Piatigorsky that Raphael was able to get a copy of the score of the original version of Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations. These had been significantly altered by the dedicatee, Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, whose version was the only one available in the West. Tchaikovsky's original remained buried in Moscow, and Raphael was lucky to get the score from Piatigorsky and always played this version. For years he travelled with his own set of parts, though now it has been published by Peters Edition, edited by Raphael, the first time the original version has been published outside Russia. One of the problems with a work like the Rococo Variations, written for a particular soloist, is that composers are often open to the improvement of works by virtuoso instrumentalists, but Raphael feels that it is important the think that the composer knows their own mind, and exploring the original version of a work is an important part of seeing into the creative process.

Here, in a fascinating diversion in our conversation, Raphael mentions that his wife, the baroque violinist Elizabeth Wallfisch, is the grand-daughter of the conductor Albert Coates, whom Lady Elgar would refer to as 'that brutal selfish ill-mannered bounder'. When the London Symphony Orchestra premiered Elgar's Cello Concerto with the composer conducting, the rest of the programme was conducted by Coates who appropriated much of Elgar's rehearsal time so that the premiere was under rehearsed. The occasion clearly had some sort of effect on cellist Felix Salmond, who was the soloist. Though Salmond played again for Elgar, and Elgar certainly did not blame him for the debacle, and Salmond would play the concerto a couple of times more, later in life he never talked about the work to his students.

Raphael Wallfisch (Photo Benjamin Ealovega)
Raphael Wallfisch (Photo Benjamin Ealovega)
Raphael's busy schedule is continuing over the season. On 17 October 2019 he will be playing Bloch's Schelomo with Philharmonia Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall in a concert conducted by David Hill which also includes the Bach Choir performing Delius' Sea Drift and giving the UK premiere of Roxanna Panufnik's Four Choral Seasons - full details from the Southbank Centre website

You can find all of Raphael's activites on the calendar page on his website.

Raphael Wallfisch on disc:

  • Karl Weigl: Cello Concerto/Sonata - Raphael Wallfisch, John York, Edward Rushton, Konzerthausorchester Berlin, Nicholas Milton - cpo 
  • Hans Gál, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco: Cello Concertos - Raphael Wallfisch, Konzerthausorchester Berlin, Nicholas Milton - cpo
  • Ben-Haim, Bloch, Korngold: Cello Concertos - Raphael Wallfisch, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Lukasz Borowicz - cpo
  • Goldschmidt, Reizenstein: Cello Concertos - Raphael Wallfisch; Konzerthausorchester Berlin; Nicholas Milton - cpo 
  • Seiber, Dorati, Bartok: works for cello and orchestra - Raphael Wallfisch, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Gabor Takacs Nagy - Nimbus 
  • Miklós Rózsa: Cello Concerto, Sinfonia concertante for violin, cello & orchestra - Raphael Wallfisch, Philippe Graffin, BBC Concert Orchestra, Barry Wordsworth, ASV

Elsewhere on this blog
  • The Song of Love: songs & duets by Vaughan Williams from Kitty Whately, Roderick Williams, William Vann (★★) - CD review
  • Will put a smile on your face: Vivaldi's L'estro armonico in new versions from Armoniosa  (★★) - CD review
  • 17th century Playlist: from toe-tapping to plangently melancholy, Ed Lyon & Theatre of the Ayre (★★★) - CD review
  • Magic realism, politics and terrific songs: Weill and Kaiser's Winter's Fairy Tale in an imaginative production from English Touring Opera - opera review
  • Orpheus goes to Hell: Emma Rice's lively new production somewhat misses the point of Offenbach (★★) - opera review
  • Thought provoking and engaging: Mozart's The Seraglio at English Touring Opera (★★) - opera review
  • Not letting the audience off the hook: I talk to Simon Wallfisch & Edward Rushton about performing Lieder, & about their new album - interview
  • Listening with new ears: Masaaki Suzuki conducts Mendelssohn's Elijah with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (★★½) - concert review
  • Guy Cassier's Ring Cycle production revived at Berlin Staatsoper (★★★) - Opera Review
  • Love and potions on Barry Island: Donizetti's The Elixir of Love at the King's Head Theatre (★★½) - opera review
  • Wayne McGregor's stylish take on Gluck's Orpheus, with Alice Coote in the title role, opens ENO's new season (★★★) - opera review
  • Yuval Sharon’s brand-new production of Die Zauberflöte at Staatsoper Berlin marks the first new production of this opera at this theatre in 25 years - (★★★) opera review
  • Vicious scheming and visual splendour, but seduction too: Opera North's revival of Handel's Giulio Cesare (★★★) - opera review
  • Home

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