Playing with destiny

By Rodney Greenberg, May 2, 2008
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Raphael Wallfisch only found out he will star in the ‘most significant’ concert of his life when he saw the posters. Luckily, he’s available, he tells Rodney Greenberg

A friend told me: ‘Did you know you are playing Schelomo at the Konzerthaus in Berlin on May 8?’ She showed me a leaflet. I said: ‘I hope I’m free.’”


Due to a vagaries of concert planning, Raphael Wallfisch, the internationally celebrated cellist, found himself on the posters for this performance — and a repeat the following day in Frankfurt— without having heard about it. Fortunately, he is free. He predicts it will be “the most significant and historically symbolic concert” of his life.

With the Brandenburgisches Staatsorchester conducted by Howard Griffiths, he will perform Ernest Bloch’s passionate, biblically inspired work on the 60th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel. This date has further resonance in Germany, being the anniversary of VE Day in 1945, marking the end of the Second World War in Europe.

He feels this is the most meaningful musical statement he could make. “My mother, Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, survived Auschwitz and Belsen because playing cello in the camps saved her life. My father, Peter, was also a refugee from the Third Reich. He emigrated to Palestine in 1938, and became an Israeli citizen in 1948. He met my mother when they were music students in Paris. She boycotted Germany all the years she played in the English Chamber Orchestra, but now gives talks to students in Germany and Austria.”

Ernest Bloch, the Swiss-born composer who settled in America in 1941, wrote many Jewish-inspired works. He subtitled Schelomo “Hebrew Rhapsody”, and explained: “One may imagine that the voice of the cello is the voice of King Schelomo [Solomon].”

Wallfisch, who is 54, recalls the part this music played in his boyhood. “My mother was a cellist and my father a pianist, so music was part of everyday life. Among our 78rpm records was Schelomo played by Emanuel Feuermann, with Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. The first disc was missing, so for years I only knew it from side three onwards. I was so crazy about it, I used to play the records down the phone to my friends. I’m amazed I had any friends left.”

Another Jewish cellist whose interpretation he greatly admires was Zara Nelsova. “Her real name was Nelson. Though Bloch had written Schelomo in 1916 before meeting her, she became his favourite interpreter. If I ever need inspiration, I just listen to a few bars of Zara. In a lesson with her, I asked how I should play a quarter-tone that Bloch marked with a cross in the score. She said: ‘Don’t worry, life’s too short for that.’”

In 1957, the Russian virtuoso Gregor Piatigorsky was to have played Schelomo with the Israel Philharmonic at the inaugural concert of the Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv. Being indisposed, the French star Paul Tortelier took over, sharing that highly charged occasion with Bernstein as conductor.

Wallfisch studied with Piatigorsky in California, leading to informal recitals of chamber music where virtuoso violinist Jascha Heifetz played. He remembers deputising for Piatigorsky when the cellist could not attend a rehearsal at Heifetz’s house. “Jascha had some fiddles on the mantelpiece. He took them down to show me, and they were just the backs — no fronts.”

The musical world might have lost Wallfisch to the theatre had he not decided to devote himself to the cello. “I didn’t go into the National Youth Orchestra. I got involved with the Junior Drama League instead, and I loved acting. I still adore the theatre. I play cello interludes in a presentation called Odyssey, about the life of Bach. The actor is either Timothy West, his son Samuel, or his wife Prunella Scales. I’m in awe of their ability to use the stage.”

If the West family represents an acting dynasty, the Wallfisch one is surely its musical counterpart. Wallfisch’s wife, Elizabeth, is a violinist. Their eldest son, Benjamin, has three careers: pianist, conductor and composer, while son Simon started as a cellist and is now a tenor. Daughter Joanna, studying fine arts, also does gigs as a jazz singer.

“It’s not always easy when a whole family is so busy and so much of a musical dynasty,” says Raphael. “But then the rewards make it all worthwhile.”

    Last updated: 1:06pm, March 18 2009