With acclaimed recordings across the classical and contemporary music repertoire, cellist Raphael Wallfisch is also part of a musical legacy. His mother, Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, founding member of the English Chamber Orchestra, was saved from extermination in Nazi death camps by her cello, as recounted in her 1996 memoir Inherit the Truth. He has also recorded an album of Jewish-themed music Bloch Schelomo and Voice in the Wilderness with his son Benjamin Wallfisch conducting. Regularly performing and recording with Israeli artists Hagai Shaham (violin) and Arnon Erez (piano) in their Trio Shaham Erez Wallfisch, he frequently explores works by Jewish composers and those inspired by Jewish themes.
‘Elizabeth’, part of ‘Shakespeare 400’, is a dance theatre piece directed and choreographed by Will Tuckett for the Royal Opera House. Martin Yates’ composed music for cello and baritone is a modern reimagining of a typical Tudor-period ensemble. It re-creates the structures and harmonies of music by the great Elizabethan composers, including John Dowland, Thomas Tallis and Thomas Morley.
The production of Elizabeth was inspired and inspiring. The queen’s wit, love for dance and the arts narrated through Alastair Middleton’s libretto together with Raphael Wallfisch superb cello playing and the magnificent performance by Zenaida Yanowsky and Carlos Acosta, ensured a memorable evening.
At our meeting spot – the artists’ café at the Royal Opera House – Raphael’s charm matched his brilliant performance.
Rivka Jacobson: In Elizabeth, we had instrumental music, a singer, a baritone and ballet. Do you see the fusion of the three disciplines as the future of contemporary dance theatre?
Raphael Wallfisch: The merging of disciplines has got tremendous potential, something that could attract a lot of people who are not sure if they like ballet, or classical music. I can prove it! Several very young children, twelve year old children I’d say, who were not that interested in ballet or classical music, were quite riveted by this experience, by this quite difficult production, because it is about a fascinating, dramatic history that is quite cold-blooded really… something that isn’t so different to politics and power play.
RJ: The score draws on music of the great Elizabethan composers and on Elizabethan themes…
RW: Yes, the music is the one composed part of this production. The words are all contemporary to the Elizabethan time. They’re all original words by Queen Elizabeth I, of Shakespeare or one of the poets. The music however, by Martin Yates, is influenced by the Elizabethan style, a little bit, but turned upside down and inside out. It is theatre music that underpins the acting, the words. It’s kind of a variation on the theme Greensleeves, possibly written by Elizabeth I’s father, Henry VIII.
RJ: But the cello is not an instrument known at the Elizabethan era…
RW: That’s right. The cello really became used in the mid-seventeenth century and then onwards.
RJ: Why then, do we hear the cello and no other orchestral instrument?
RW: The cello has a huge range. It goes very low and very high, like the range of a baritone singer. It is also a very dramatic instrument. It lends itself well to theatrics. It is a very emotional instrument. A lot of the piece is tragic, it is sad, so the cello’s sound suits that. If you only have one instrument, it needs to be the cello. A violin wouldn’t have the variety, a guitar or lute possibly, but I think you would have to have more than one instrument. But the cello just about covers everything.
RJ: For a young person who wants to be introduced to classical music, and in this case the cello, what would you recommend?
RW: Very often I play the Bach Suites. There is something about the music that is very easy to comprehend, very immediate. Then if you want to hear something on a grander scale, Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann. It depends on the age, on the interest. Because sometimes people surprise me. They can know nothing about music and then hear something complex, you know, not straightforward, and they always love it. They say ‘oh I was fascinated by that’.
RJ: Would you say that contemporary music has the same depth and wealth as classical music?
RW: If you include Stravinsky and Debussy, from the beginning of the 20th century, all the way up to today, then absolutely, there is music with as much power as, not necessarily Beethoven’s symphonies, but the other works.
RJ: I am thinking more of late 20th century and composers of today.
RW: That’s difficult. You couldn’t say. You can’t know if something is going to last. There are composers, and I’ve played with some of them, whose music has depth and profundity and a popular appeal. For instance, James Macmillan, he’s a composer that quite rightly deserves all the success he has had because the music is terrific. Bret Dean, an Australian composer. You know, it’s complex but it’s fabulous.
RJ: You were born into a family of distinguished musicians. Your mother, a cellist, Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, and your father is a pianist. As a young person, did you think you were different from everyone else?
RW: Well, my youngest friends were also inevitably kids of musicians too because my parents’ friends were colleagues. I remember when I was nine years old, I loved the theatre; I wanted to be an actor more than anything else. There was a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare, I remember it in detail and I had a very good part. I was very involved with that, more than with music. At least five or six of my classmates became very famous actors. Alan Rickman, a prefect in my school. Christopher Guard… and that’s all because of these inspiring teachers. I was in an artistic milieu just by chance. My parents wanted me to go to a good school so I could try and not be a musician.
RJ: You became a cellist, whilst your father is a pianist. Did you choose this instrument because of your mother?
RW: These things choose you, especially at that age. Cello, I didn’t like that much at first, but little by little. Around the age of 13 there was a changing point. That’s why I left school early. The headmaster wasn’t going to facilitate any time to practice. Which was great, I mean, I went to Rome when I was sixteen to study all by myself and it was amazing, being thrown into the deep end of a pool. I had to learn Italian; I had to fend for myself. I went to study privately with Amadeo Baldevino, a friend of my then teacher. Then the following summer I went back to work with them very intensely. I had a great time. I was very lucky. And then I went to the Royal Academy of Music in London and then I went to America for two years.
RJ: At what age did you feel you were a professional musician?
RW: Well, I went to the Academy when I was 17 and won prizes there. By the time I was twenty I was finished. Then I went to America, then I came back, then I started going for international competitions. I was twenty-one when I came back from America, and I immediately worked, so I had a job.
RJ: So leaving school at 16, moving to Rome, all on your own, to learn a new language, you must have been very driven
RW: It’s not that I was ambitious, it’s that I loved what I was doing and I had wonderful mentors. I felt very safe. Although alone, I didn’t feel scared, I felt happy. Yes, I had an ambition to play better.
RJ: And to perform like your parents?
RW: Not really. I wasn’t conscious of that. I really wanted to play the cello well, like my teachers. I had certain goals in my mind but nothing practical or material. It was totally about doing what I was doing, which was good because it meant I practiced well.
RJ: You are also a teacher. Can you pick three of the best teachers that influenced your technique and style, and then say why they inspired you so much?
RW: Amaryllis Fleming, the half-sister of Ian Fleming the author of 007 and the daughter of August John, the painter, had a fantastic influence on me. I was 14. I admired her. She was a beautiful woman as well. And you know when you suddenly start to notice the opposite sex… So deep down, I probably had a crush. But more than that, she was a powerful woman. She demanded a lot from me. And amazingly, as a reflection of her generosity, just as I was getting good, she said: ‘time to leave’. You know most teachers say: ‘stay with me’, for reflected glory. But not at all, she sent me to Baldevino. She knew it would be a good thing.
And she was right. By the time I started my studies at the Academy as a regular student, I was way ahead. She equipped me, as well as Baldevino. And then after that, my teacher at the Academy was wonderful, Derek Simpson. But the biggest influence of all was Petrovsky. The artistic level that he represented historically, I mean, he was one of the greatest. So being in his presence for two years, sometimes for whole days with him alone, the influence was colossal.
RJ: I read somewhere that you are the most recorded cellist ever.
RW: Not ever, but certainly in this country. It’s just a statistic really. I started recording in the early 80s, which was a boom period for recording. Everyone was recording. Through thick and thin I’ve carried on, even this year was full of recordings. I average at three a year. What is really important is that music that isn’t heard enough, that has no chance of being heard in a concert hall, is recorded. I mean, even works like Bloch’s Schelomo, which is played rarely in this country. I mean, I know it’s hard here to play, but these are master works! I recorded that for Nimbus with my son and I juxtaposed it with music by André Caplet which also has a very biblical theme. But anyway, I love to not only discover but curate interesting projects.
RJ: To what extent has your Jewish background influenced your taste in music, for instance with Bloch and Schumann? Did you have a Jewish upbringing?
RW: My parents were both refugees, and their choice was to assimilate into the British society and I was totally part of that. They were barely religiously influenced really. I was given the chance to go and experience a Jewish education. I said yes, so I did. I went and I felt like a fish out of water. I had a Bar Mitzvah, I went to Hebrew classes, I went to the synagogue every weekend. The people there, the youngsters, came from a different background to me, a more religious background. It just wasn’t for me. I didn’t fit in.
RJ: But you went on to create Jewish music?
RW: Yes, but that’s different. I feel totally Jewish. Yet, I’m very sad that I can’t join in the prayers in Hebrew. Of course when I work with my Israeli friends it would be great if I could speak Hebrew but it doesn’t stop you from being Jewish or feeling Jewish 100%. It’s the fate you are given.
RJ: But what about your mother’s background, it didn’t affect your perception of your heritage and culture?
RW: I have to thank both of my parents.
RJ: Was your father also in a concentration camp?
RW: My father, at the age of thirteen, went with his mother and brother from Breslow to Palestine. And that was 1937. So he was British protected. He became Israeli in ‘48. So he can speak Hebrew and Arabic. And after ‘48, when he was in Paris studying, he met my mother. He didn’t want to go back to Israel, so he came to London.
RJ: When you started your career, how difficult was it?
RW: It’s harder now. The demand is not as great but the number of people is huge compared to forty years ago. Basically, what has happened in this country is that the level of teaching has become incredibly better, so there are more and more talented people. But there is a bigger outlet now, for instance, with music therapy. That didn’t exist before. But on the other hand, the minus side, teaching in schools, money isn’t going onto that.
RJ: You play a 1760 Gennaro Gagliano, the 1733 Montagnana “Ex Romberg” and a modern cello built by Patrick Robin. Does it feel different? Does it sound different?
RW: They all have different voices. They all have different qualities. They are different shapes. I mean there is the basic shape of the cello, but then we have them wide, long, all very different. You can’t always tell. But they are different; the response, the volume, the colour, the sound, the tone, the ease of playing, the carry-on quality; what it sounds like in the hall. It’s exciting. This week, I’m playing the Gagliano, a cello from the mid-18th century, but I’ve recently been loaned this older instrument, which is incredibly valuable, but I’m sad because I’ll probably play the weaker one.
RJ: So can we compare them to colours?
RW: That’s a good way of describing it. The Gagliano has a golden colour and a lighter sound, whereas the Vuillaume “Sheremetev” is very dark and is very dark in sound. Like thick soup. Like every sound is this width, like a wave band. And then there are variations on that theme. The contemporary instruments I play have elements of that. Some of them are bright; some of them are very powerful and strident and so on.
RJ: So if the tonality is different and the colour is different, does it mean that you have to adjust the playing of the piece to the cello you happen to be playing?
RW: Yes a really fine instrument inspires you and pushes you further. As a singer, you are stuck with your own voice forever. But with an instrument, if something goes wrong, you can go and get it repaired and fixed or you can get another one. You can’t do that with your own voice.
I actually have six instruments. I don’t like depending on one thing. I like to feel that my own playing and what I try to do is independent of the instrument. I’m not dependent on that thing to work. But I always go back to the one I love. This is my favourite. I know why. It feels like part of my arm, part of me.