Raphael Wallfisch & John York

Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op.4
Much Ado about Nothing – Suite
Sonata for Cello and Piano
Three Short Pieces
Sonata for Cello and Piano
Sonata for Piano and Cello in A, Op.69

Raphael Wallfisch (cello) & John York (piano)

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 20 December, 2006
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

With a packed programme containing what was billed as the UK premiere of Alexander Zemlinsky’s Cello Sonata, Raphael Wallfisch and John York gave plenty of value for money at a festive Wigmore Hall. In fact they had already performed the piece as part of a recital at the Zemlinsky ‘Lost and Found’ day in October, but this was its first public bow in this country.

A substantial three-movement work, the Sonata was discovered by Wallfisch among his father Peter’s papers. John York’s programme note revealed that the duo took the piece at face value, second-guessing only a few things that “lie or sound awkwardly”.

It was to be assumed these were in the relatively inconclusive finale, whose dance-like figures could have been given more buoyancy in this performance. The real charmer was the central F major Andante, with a nice turn of phrase as its principal theme was strongly contrasted by a turbulent central section in the minor key. This major-minor alternation was a common denominator throughout, with the first movement betraying the influence of Brahms and even César Franck’s Violin Sonata, its atmospheric development perfectly suited to Wallfisch’s mellow tone.

Overall the Sonata is a most engaging work, and an important restoration to the Zemlinsky canon, further enhanced by three short juvenilia that the duo included as a bonus – the bare bones of a Humoresque, a charming Song and a Tarantella that amused in starting a second section but thinking better of it and finishing abruptly. All four pieces have been recorded for imminent release on the Nimbus label.

Unfortunately the Sonata was thrust into immediate opposition with the Beethoven, which began after barely a moment’s break and suffered rather at the hands of an interpretation that felt pressed for time. Wallfisch and York were nonetheless together ‘as-one’ in the dialogue of the first movement, yet as the scherzo pressed-on the cello tuning became less secure. The brief, two-minute Adagio could have done with more lyricism and room, which would have afforded greater contrast to the finale, where Wallfisch affectionately gave time to the beautiful second subject.

An equally generous first half finished with the recent Cello Sonata of Peter Fribbins, which impressed on a structural level as the figuration at the heart of the piece made itself known briefly in the ‘Prelude’ and ‘Aria’ before dominating the ‘Toccata’ itself. Here the sectional divides felt rather telegraphed, though the busy counterpoint offered both players ample room for big gestures. Perhaps the two-part figure with which Wallfisch immaculately opened the ‘Aria’ could have done with more exposure and development as it was quickly submerged in more aggressive writing. The toccata figure bears a strong resemblance to D-S-C-H, though there was no obviously Russian flavouring to it.

Korngold’s Suite, given here in an arrangement by the cellist from the violin and piano version, offered lighter fare. The register of the cello was stretched occasionally, but the duo’s affection for this music was clear, the lurch of the drunken watchmen in Holzapfel und Schlehwein especially enjoyable.

Kodály’s Sonata also benefited from a freely expressive performance, both players catching the folksy melodic inflections and Wallfisch impressing in the lower register.

Throughout the recital John York had the piano on the highest stick, which led to problems of balance in several fortissimo passages, Wallfisch disappearing beneath the volume. However both players clearly enjoyed this late-Romantic music and offered more Korngold as an encore, a beautifully rendered Pierrot’s Tanzlied.

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