Much to Admire from Raphael Wallfisch and John York at Kings Place

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Saints-Saëns, Brahms, Debussy, Prokofiev: Raphael Wallfisch (cello), John York (piano), Kings Place, London, 18.10.2015 (CS)

Saint-Saëns: Sonata for cello and piano No. 1 in C minor Op.32

Brahms (arr. Klengel): Sonata for cello and piano in D Op.78

Debussy: Sonata for cello and piano in D minor

Prokofiev: Sonata for cello and piano in C Op.119

Cellist Raphael Wallfisch’s discography is extensive; perhaps exhaustive, in the sense that he has recorded practically every major work written for the cello – for EMI, Chandos, Black Box, ASV, Naxos and Nimbus – and many a ‘minor’ one too, exploring both the mainstream concerto repertoire and less familiar works by Dohnányi, Respighi, Barber, Hindemith, Martinů, Kabalevsky and Khachaturian, as well as compositions by English composers from the early to the late years of the twentieth century: MacMillan, Finzi, Delius, Bax, Bliss, Britten, Moeran and Leighton.

The four sonatas which the cellist performed in this recital at Kings Place, with his long-term accompanist John York, and which formed a very generous programme, demonstrated this wide scope of interest, taking us on a sweeping journey from the Romanticism of France and Germany of the 1870s, through French Modernism at the start of World War I, to post-World War II Russia.  Impressively supported by John York, whose virtuosity was understated and sympathetic, Wallfisch’s playing was unwaveringly eloquent: the phrasing exquisitely tailored, the tone refined, the musicianship expressive and fluent.  But therein lay the reason for my slight discontent: for, while the music flowed with unceasing beauty, this very beauty seemed to diminish the individuality of the four composers’ distinctive voices.  Presented with such effortless urbanity, I found myself longing for contrasting utterances: for idiosyncrasy and individualism, for musical arguments and contentions, for grittiness, even ugliness, to counter the gentility.

Camille Saint-Saëns’ compositions for the cello are some of the most outstanding of the cello repertoire, though his two sonatas are less well-known, perhaps underrated.  The Cello Sonata No.1 in C Minor of 1872 is a tempestuous work, reputed to be informed by composer’s anguish following the death of his aunt during the battle of Sedan in which Napoleon III was defeated.  As the first work to be promoted by the Société Nationale de Musique, which was founded in 1871, the work has an added significance.

Wallfisch and York brought forth the combative nature of the relationship between cello and piano at the start of the Allegro, though the close of the exposition evoked poise and stillness after the storm.  Throughout this first movement I would have liked a more robust, meaty tone from Wallfisch, though in the development section he imbued the lines with lyricism and richness.  Impressively, despite the welter of notes and full chordal textures he was required to despatch (I was put in mind of the ceaseless scalic tumult of the final movement of Saint-Saëns’ D minor Violin Sonata), York was a discreet presence, never overpowering and at times remarkably lucid.  The music’s despairing urgency rarely ruffled the surface, however; and although the double-stopped chords which conclude the movement were satisfyingly gruff, these might have been even rawer.  Wallfisch’s characteristic imperturbability was an apt mode for the Andante tranquillo sostenuto, in which York’s supple accompaniment figures did much to draw in the listener; particularly at the close, in the interplay with the cello’s pizzicato which here was warm and charming.  This relaxed ease was brusquely eradicated by the turbulence of the Allegro moderato in which the piano’s racing figures were successfully reined in by York in order to allow the cello’s long-breathed melodies to speak cleanly and without undue force.

Given that Brahms composed two wonderful sonatas for the cello – the first in E Minor during the 1860s, and the second in F Major, twenty years later – I wondered why Wallfisch had chosen instead to perform Paul Klengel’s arrangement of Brahms’s Violin Sonata in G Major Op.78.  My judgements may be clouded by the fact that, as a violinist, I know this sonata inside out: I found that the opening melody of the Vivace ma non troppo lacked the floating quality that the higher lying violin version evokes and that the cello’s double-stopped chords, when the piano takes over the melody, had too much presence, Wallfisch employing a full vibrato and singing tone for a musical gesture which is, for me, more elusive and suggestive.  Then, the scalic ascents which disappear into ethereality in the violin sonata inevitably felt more earth-bound in this cello arrangement.  But perhaps my ear was getting tied up in familiar details, rather than absorbing the whole: for, stepping back, one appreciated much beautifully expressive and suave phrasing, particularly in the quieter passages for the cello, and the nuanced handling of tempo and sensitive rubato of the closing bars of the first movement were persuasive.

The Adagio had a darkness and tortured anguish, with the piano’s statement of the theme resonating with bell-like sonority, though the individual voices of the chordal progressions remained lucid.  Similarly, Wallfisch’s double-stopped melodies were gloriously rich and sonorous, which made the withdrawal the cellist’s vibrato in the concluding phrases even more telling.  The Allegro molto moderato was surprisingly restrained in tempo, but this did mean that the raindrops of the Regenlied plopped and splattered with pictorial clarity.

After the interval we moved into the twentieth century, and Wallfisch seemed to find a more probing expressive register.  The opening of Debussy’s 1915 Cello Sonata was unsettling as, after the firm and assured initial thematic statements, we entered a more elusive, private world.  Here, there was a real sense of a narrative of the interior, as well as, contrastingly, declamatory power, as the mood swung from direct to withdrawn, from poised to distraught.  The Sérénade with its brash jazziness inspired Wallfisch to allow an uglier tone to surface, and the tight pizzicatos snapped with a mocking irony which was complemented by glassy ponticello tremolo and floating flautandi high up the fingerboard.  The Finale danced, but did not quite capture the wildness of Debussy’s extraordinary shifts of tempo, colour and harmony; the composer’s subversion of the ‘Classical’ might have hit harder.

Prokofiev’s Sonata in C Op.119 (1948) concluded the programme, and in some ways this work played to Wallfisch’s strengths: after the grave chorale with this the Sonata commences, the full tone of the opening theme of the Moderato animato compellingly engaged the listener, as York once again showed technical skill and discernment in restraining the accompaniment to the allow the cello to dominate the musical narrative.  Wallfisch’s crafting of the melodic arguments was wonderfully appealing, and it was hard to imagine that this Sonata was written during Prokofiev’s ‘darkest hour’, just one year after a Politburo address to the a Communist Party Congress denounced Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Khachaturian, and Myaskovsky for writing music that was ‘too cosmopolitan and formalist’.  In particular, Wallfisch’s dark lower register resonated powerfully.  The rapid alternations of arco and pizzicato in the Moderato, and the sweeping acciaccaturas, were punchy and dramatic, but they might have been even more uninhibited, though the central section of the Moderato – Andante dolce touched a lighter spirit and once more show-cased the effortless seductiveness of Wallfisch’s tone.  The fiendish pyrotechnics of the Allegro ma non troppo were negotiated without a bead of sweat being broken.

Wallfisch’s online biography reports that ‘While studying with the great Russian cellist Gregor Piatigorsky in California, [Wallfisch] was chosen to perform chamber music with Jascha Heifetz in the informal recitals that Piatigorsky held at his home’.  After this concert, in which both performers displayed remarkable technical assurance and expressive mellifluousness, I was reminded of George Bernard Shaw’s remarks to the young Heifetz the day after the 19-year-old violinist had made his Lon­don debut: ‘If you pro­voke a jeal­ous God by play­ing with such super­hu­man per­fec­tion you will die young. I earnestly advise you to play some­thing badly every night before going to bed, instead of say­ing your prayers. No mor­tal should pre­sume to play so faultlessly’.  Wallfisch played beautifully; but the voice we heard was, prevailingly, the cellist’s own: unfailingly polished and debonair.  I’d have liked to hear more of Debussy’s sadness, turbulence and stylish swagger; and of Prokofiev’s carefree daring and ironic wit.

A short afterword: Kings Place is a terrific venue, programming an enormously diverse range of cultural events, in an exciting and vibrant spatial environment.  It could, and I hope will, potentially grow to become a worthy complement to the Wigmore Hall on the other side of town.  The London Chamber Music Sundays are an absolute joy and we should ‘spread the word’ as far and wide as possible.  But, please, please could the Kings Place ushers be instructed not to let late-arriving patrons push their way noisily to mid-row seats just as performers are about to commence playing, or between movements.

Claire Seymour

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