Even the most devoted music-lover might be surprised by Raphael Wallfisch’s new CD series. The distinguished cellist is devoting his attention to concertos by 20th-century Jewish composers who were forced into exile. The first disc — work by Hans Gál and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco — is just out with CPO. At least four more are planned.
It’s a labour of love for Wallfisch, whose parents themselves escaped the Nazis. His mother, the cellist Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, survived Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen; his father, the pianist Peter Wallfisch was granted a visa to travel to Palestine in 1936 thanks to a scheme for gifted young musicians. Many of the composers Wallfisch is including knew either his parents or his teacher, Gregor Piatigorsky.
Wallfisch seems astonished by both the quality and quantity of these concertos, in some cases unheard for decades. “I’m continually finding them,” he says. “A few years ago I was asked to play the Gál concerto and I absolutely love it — it’s up there with my favourites. It’s totally inspired, with fabulous melodies, it’s virtuoso without being fearsome.”
Gál (1890-1987) was director of the conservatory in Mainz until the Nazis’ racial laws forced his dismissal in 1933. His concentrated, lyrical music displays little of the trauma he underwent. Having fled to Vienna from Germany, he had to escape again after the Anschluss; in Britain, Professor Donald Francis Tovey found him work at Edinburgh University. But soon he and his sons were interned on the Isle of Man, where one son took his own life. Ultimately Gál was appointed to the post Tovey had held, professor of music at Edinburgh. “I met Hans Gál there once, in the 1980s,” Wallfisch remembers, “ this lovely, frail gentleman.”
Once Wallfisch started exploring the repertoire, the floodgates opened. Two musician colleagues pointed him towards Karl Weigl (1881-1949): a Viennese composer who emigrated to the US in 1938. “I listened to some of his symphonies,” says Wallfisch, “and I thought they sounded like Zemlinsky, one of his teachers, rich, opulent, high-romantic Viennese music.”
Weigl’s grandson in California has become Wallfisch’s great ally, making the concerto’s material available: “He told me it has never been played — and the second movement is dedicated to my teacher, Piatigorsky. Then,” he adds, “I started to realise I was overrunning and I had to make more CDs because I had too much stuff!”
The partner work on the Gál disc is by Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968), who was born in Italy, but escaped to the US in 1939, sponsored by the violinist Jascha Heifetz. His cello concerto was premiered in 1935 — by Piatigorsky. Soon he settled in Hollywood and established himself — like quite a few other refugee composers — as a writer of film scores. “His concerto is a bit like film music, but very interesting because it is unknown,” says Wallfisch.
“Among the other pieces I totally love is the concerto by Berthold Goldschmidt (1903-1996), which was premiered by William Pleeth in the 1950s, but then forgotten.” The music of Goldschmidt, who settled in London and worked quietly for the BBC, was ignored for many years, Wallfisch adds, by the modernism-dominated musical establishment. “Then Simon Rattle got interested when Goldschmidt was in his nineties. He was still writing music — someone who’d known Mahler! Since he died, there’s been a renaissance of his works.”
A concerto by Franz Reizenstein (1911-1968), Wallfisch says, had been in his own music collection for years, but untouched until now. Reizenstein came to the UK from Germany in the 1930s and studied with Vaughan Williams. “He was a colossal pianist — and when I investigated this concerto it turned out to be a stonking great piece. It’s a monster, so powerful — and nobody’s played it!”
Later, there will be music by Mieczyslaw Weinberg, Paul Ben Haim, Robert Starer, Ernest Bloch and Jerzy Fitelberg. The list could continue. And that, Wallfisch says, is exactly why these works need to be discovered and aired: so much great music exists, yet is rarely heard.
“I’d like to inspire others to at least get hold of the music and play it — because these pieces are so fantastic.”
It’s hard to get audiences for live performances of unknown works, so recordings can be the best vehicle for them, he says. “But I’ve noticed, with other under-recognised music I’ve recorded, that there is a knock-on effect: now other cellists are learning it. So it works. You just have to make a start.”