Interview by Tim Janof
Raphael Wallfisch was born in London in 1953 into a family of distinguished musicians, his mother the cellist Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, and his father the pianist Peter Wallfisch.
At an early age, Raphael was greatly inspired by hearing Zara Nelsova play, and, guided by a succession of fine teachers, including Amaryllis Fleming, Amadeo Baldovino, and Derek Simpson, it became apparent that the cello was to be his life’s work.
While studying with the great Russian cellist Gregor Piatigorsky in California, he was chosen to perform chamber music with Jascha Heifetz in the informal recitals that Piatigorsky held at his home.
At the age of twenty-four he won the Gaspar Cassadó International Cello Competition in Florence. Since then he has enjoyed a world-wide career playing with such orchestras as the London Symphony, London Philharmonic, Philharmonia, BBC Symphony, English Chamber Orchestra, Hallé, City of Birmingham Symphony, Leipzig Gewandhaus, Berlin Symphony, Westdeutscher Rundfunk, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Indianapolis Symphony, Warsaw Philharmonic, Czech Philharmonic, and many others.
He is regularly invited to play at major festivals such as the BBC Proms, Edinburgh, Aldeburgh, Spoleto, Prades, Oslo, and Schleswig Holstein.
Teaching is one of Raphael Wallfisch’s passions. He is in great demand as a teacher all over the world, and holds professorships in Switzerland at the Zürich Winterthur Konservatorium and in Germany at the Hochschule Mainz.
His extensive discography of recordings with EMI, Chandos, Black Box, ASV, Naxos, and Nimbus includes concertante works by Dohnanyi, Respighi, Barber, Hindemith and Martinu, as well as Richard Strauss, Dvorak, Kabalevsky, Khachaturian, and a wide range of British cello concertos, including works by MacMillan, Finzi, Delius, Bax, Bliss, Britten, Moeran and Kenneth Leighton. For the Chandos Walton Edition he recorded the Cello Concerto originally written for his master, Piatigorsky.
Britain’s leading composers have worked closely with Raphael Wallfisch, often writing works for him. These include Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Kenneth Leighton, James MacMillan, John Metcalf, Paul Patterson, Robert Simpson, Robert Saxton, Roger Smalley, Giles Swayne, John Tavener, and Adrian Williams.
He lives in London with his wife, violinist Elizabeth Wallfisch. They have three children.
TJ: You come from a family of professional musicians.
RW: Yes. My father was an internationally known concert pianist and my mother, until very recently, was a cellist in the English Chamber Orchestra. I was surrounded by great music and great music-making my entire childhood.
TJ: Your mother was imprisoned in concentration camps during the Nazi era.
RW: Yes, her book about her experience — Inherit the Truth — was published several years ago. It has been translated into French, German, Japanese, and other languages. It’s an extraordinary account of that horrific time in her life.
She had gone to Berlin at age 13 to study the cello, but there was the Kristallnacht and she had to return home. Pretty soon her family disappeared, one member at a time, and eventually my mother and her sister were arrested and deported to Auschwitz. My mother survived because she was a cellist. A cellist was needed in the woman’s band, which was run by Alma Rosé, who has been written about in another recently published book. The band played for people as they were marched in and out of the camp and for other occasions. At the end of 1943, thousands of people were evacuated in the face of the advance of the Russians, and Anita and her sister found themselves in Belsen where they were eventually liberated in 1945. The band members who are still alive continue to stay in touch with each other.
TJ: Was this something that hung over the household when you were growing up?
RW: Not one iota, which I find to be quite amazing. My mother is an extraordinary person, and she’s very, very strong. When I was born she had already begun her career as a freelance cellist in London. She had come to England in 1946, a year after liberation, so there was a year when she felt like she didn’t have a place to go, since she couldn’t go back to Germany. Eventually she emigrated to London because there was family there, and she studied with William Pleeth, who later taught Jacqueline du Pré. Slowly but surely she found her way into the professional musical scene. When I was growing up, my parents were both so busy being musicians that we were totally integrated into society. She would minimize the fact that she had a number on her arm or what had happened to her because she didn’t want to fill my head with gruesome stories. It was not until much later, when I was eight or nine years old, that she started talking about it, and now her story has come out in a book. These days she spends her time talking to schools and giving lectures all over the world.
TJ: How old were you when you started playing the cello?
RW: I was around eight years old. My parents had me try other instruments, like the piano and the violin, but the cello seems to have persevered. I wasn’t that enthusiastic in the beginning, so my mother probably quite wisely decided to not be my teacher, and I was sent to have regular cello lessons with a local instructor. Coming from a family of professional musicians was a huge advantage, since my parents knew who the good teachers were.
Even though my attention wasn’t focused, I established good habits straight away. It took about five years before I began to realize that music was something I really enjoyed. By that time I had changed teachers a couple of times and was studying with Olga Hegedus, whose name means ‘violin’ in Hungarian. It was during my time with her that I had my ‘road to Damascus’ moment. I heard Zara Nelsova and Ida Haendel play the Brahms Double and I never looked back. At 13, I knew that music was to be my life.
TJ: What was Zara Nelsova’s stage presence like?
RW: As anybody who saw her knows, she had a regal air about her as she almost floated on stage in her fantastic full-length gowns. She had a most engaging presence.
What made even more of an impression on me was her sound, which I consider to be one of the greatest cello sounds ever produced. If I ever need inspiration I just listen to a few bars of Zara and I know where I am again. She had a special intensity that hit me like a lightning bolt.
TJ: Your Strad article mentions you being influenced by a recording of the Kodály Solo Sonata by Starker. How so?
RW: My parents used to put on 78’s of Starker’s Kodály when I was a baby, so his recording started as a babysitting device and eventually became an instructive one.
TJ: You also studied with the great British cellist, Amaryllis Fleming.
RW: Yes. She was the half-sister of Ian Fleming, who wrote the James Bond books, and the daughter of Augustus John, who painted the famous picture of Guilhermina Suggia. Amaryllis was a famous beauty, but she was an incredibly serious musician, and had studied with Casals and Fournier. She was playing trios with Sandor Vegh at the time I studied with her too. I attended many of her concerts and was always inspired by her passionate playing. I’ll never forget her Elgar Concerto performance with the Royal Philharmonic.
I studied with her around 1967, when she was an extremely busy soloist and didn’t have time for too much teaching. She was playing recitals with my father, however, so she was often at our house rehearsing. This gave me the opportunity to see if she would teach me. One day, she finally relented, saying, “Look, I’ll try.”
She ended up being a wonderful teacher and very fresh in her approach, though she was very strict and disciplined. She knew that I was determined to become a professional cellist, so she ran me through lots of etudes, including Sevcik, Feuillard, and a new Popper study every week. I was very motivated, so I didn’t mind fitting in as many hours as I possibly could around my schoolwork.
She was very much interested in Period performance practice issues. She had been using gut strings throughout her career, so the baroque revival movement was not much of a stretch for her. She worked incredibly hard at Bach and talked a lot about the Anna Magdalena manuscript, which was still relatively unknown in the 1960’s. She was also one of the first to play the sixth Bach Suite on a five-string cello. She ended up recording the Suites but she was never happy with them.
When I turned 16, I decided to leave school because I wanted more time to practice. I went to Amaryllis’ friend, Amadeo Baldovino, an extraordinary cellist who played in the Trio de Trieste. Like Amaryllis, he wasn’t really teaching at the time, but he was happy to take me on for a couple of months, so I went straight to Rome, studied Italian, and took cello lessons.
I lived like an apprentice in Baldovino’s apartment. He practiced with me every day, and had extraordinarily high expectations of me, technically much higher than I had been held to by past teachers. He expected me to play Grützmacher Book II without any problem, but it certainly was a problem! He pushed me incredibly hard.
He had an amazing thumb technique, and used lots of extensions while keeping the thumb in place. Some of the fingerings he gave me in pieces like the Haydn D Major, Schumann Concerto, and Bach, I use to this day because they are such fascinating and creative fingerings.
At age 17 I went to the Academy in London and studied with Derek Simpson for the next few years. My experience there was very stimulating, not only because Derek was a great teacher, but because I could immerse myself in music with my peer group. I played in orchestra, played lots of chamber music, and did all the things one does in music school. I also met my future wife while there.
TJ: Then you went to California to study with Piatigorsky for the next two years. Who else was in the class at that time?
RW: Nathaniel Rosen, Jeffrey Solow, and Dennis Brott were in my class, among others, and Mischa Maisky was there during my second year. Piatigorsky’s class was always very mixed, however, because he believed in taking variety of people, not only the high flyers. He would take students on because they had a phobia about driving or something. He was incredibly quixotic in his choices.
TJ: What was Mischa Maisky like back then?
RW: He was a wild, wild man really, but he was an extraordinary talent. He was always very emotional, which came out in his playing and still does to this day. He and Piatigorsky got along famously, and Mischa was incredibly appreciative of Piatigorsky’s wisdom. Amazingly, Mischa came with absolutely nothing to America, but in a very short time he had a wonderful car, a great cello, and pretty soon a great career.
TJ: What did Piatigorsky focus on with you?
RW: Many things. First of all, I was trying to go too fast. I was known as the eager beaver! I wanted to play the entire repertoire that I knew, but I soon found out that this was not the way he worked. He liked to go over and over things, and was constantly discovering new things and constantly pushing me in different directions within a piece. I eventually focused on a few works, like the Schumann Concerto, Haydn D, and the Prokofiev Sinfonia Concertante, the latter he hadn’t played but liked a lot, as well as several sonatas. He was also fascinated with the Dallapiccola Ciaconna, Intermezzo e Adagio, which I was playing a lot at the time. He would practice it too, so some of my best lessons were on that piece. The end result of my time with him was that my playing freed up and I was put on a path that I am hopefully still pursuing.
Piatigorsky greatly helped me to become a better teacher too. His style of teaching and generosity made a huge impression on me. I’d say he was the ideal teaching model in many ways.
TJ: What musical principles did Piatigorsky emphasize?
RW: He always wanted us to study the score very carefully, but he wasn’t a slave to it. He was somebody with a limitless imagination and he didn’t want anything to inhibit his musicianship. He would say, if we were studying a piece by Klengel, for example, “Imagine this piece isn’t by Klengel, but by Brahms. How would you play it? Now imagine it’s by Mozart .” He tried to make us aware of the different styles with which we might play the same notes.
He also tried to help us become more aware of musical expression in order to ensure that our ideas project beyond the end of the fingerboard. It wasn’t about playing louder, it was about conveying musical ideas, and speaking through our instruments. He was also very much interested in rhetorical playing — he called it “speaking” — which meant not playing legato all the time. He’d often say, “Break the cello, for goodness sake!” He encouraged massive and huge hearted playing at times, but he also could demonstrate incredible elegance and lightness. He envisioned a myriad of colors, feelings, and expressions, and he encouraged us to discover and convey them too.
TJ: Did Piatigorsky advise you on career matters?
RW: Not really, though he did encourage us to do competitions. Otherwise, he never did much to promote his students’ careers, or to help them line up management. I think he felt it was better if people found their own way, and whatever path they ended up taking was probably the right one for them, since it was based on each person’s individual talents, desires, personality, and so on. I’m sure he would have helped more if asked to do so, but he didn’t volunteer it. In some ways, he was more interested in nurturing our growth as people, and cello lessons were a way to structure the process.
TJ: Piatigorsky had an amazing group of cellists in his class. How is it that so few of them have been able to sustain active solo careers? Several of his students had meteoric rises, but then their careers didn’t continue at that pace.
RW: This isn’t as true in Europe, but it might be the case in the United States. I remember asking Stephen Kates about his own situation. He had played with all of the great orchestras in the United States, and then his solo career slowed down. He replied with great humor, “I don’t specialize in re-engagements .” Why one person’s solo career sustains and another’s doesn’t is due a combination of factors that is unique with each person. It’s a bit of a mystery.
There are two personality traits that I think are necessary for a solo career — enthusiasm and endurance — and I believe I have both of them, and they have helped to sustain me during the slower times. I’ve been very lucky in my career, but I’ve also been very persistent, which has certainly helped, though it doesn’t get any easier over time. In order to shore me up against some uncertainty, I’ve doubled my teaching load, and I now teach in two European cities: Winterthur, which is near Zurich, and Mainz. Of course, I continue to play as much as I can, but I don’t want to be totally reliant on performing anymore.
TJ: You played chamber music with Jascha Heifetz while at USC.
RW: I played with him three or four times. I remember when Piatigorsky asked me in his heavy Russian accent, “Would you like to play chamber music with Jascha and myself?” Who would say no? So I went over to Heifetz’s house, where Heifetz was hosting a large party, and we sat down to play the Dvorak Sextet. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a place to put my endpin because he had a fantastic parquet floor. I was given a bit of carpet but that didn’t work and my cello slipped, knocking the lamp in the middle of the group towards Heifetz, who quickly grabbed it with one hand while holding his violin with the other. That was just the first measure! Piatigorsky took off his belt and tied it to my chair leg and improvised an endpin stop for me. Things went much better after that unnerving beginning.
One time we did a class concert in which we invited Heifetz to play the soprano part in Bachianas Brasilieras #5, while Piatigorsky played the first cello part. Heifetz was very reluctant to do it, asking if he also had to wear make-up and a bra? The first rehearsal was a disaster because he couldn’t even be bothered to tune his violin and didn’t know when to come in. Piatigorsky got very cross and said, “How can you play so ugly, Jascha?” Everybody was very uncomfortable with the situation. However, he practiced by the time of the concert and it was an incredible thrill to be on the same stage with these two musical giants. To be only a few feet from Heifetz and to hear his sound close up is something I’ll never forget.
This was a very different from what one experienced in Heifetz’s class concerts. All of his students sat in a semi-circle on stage with their violins and had to get up one by one and play a virtuoso piece without breaking down, which Piatigorsky thought was disgusting. Piatigorsky swore that his class would do a concert in which everyone would play a sonata or concerto, not just some flashy virtuoso piece.
TJ: What were Heifetz and Piatigorsky like in rehearsals?
RW: I didn’t see them in rehearsals all that often. I remember one time that they were to perform the Dvorak piano quintet with Brooks Smith and others and Piatigorsky didn’t want to do the rehearsals, so he sent me instead. Lucky me! Piatigorsky just showed up for the concert. I think they preferred to minimize their rehearsal time.
TJ: How old were you when you won the Cassadó Competition?
RW: I was 24. After I left California and returned to England, which was around 1975, I had the good fortune of finding a teaching position right away. Amaryllis Fleming was a consultant at a special school for talented kids, the Wells Cathedral School, which needed a cello teacher, and she asked me if I was interested in joining their faculty. I had no income at the time, so I eagerly agreed to do it. I was also happy to stave off playing in an orchestra so that I could continue to concentrate on preparing for competitions and concerts. The teaching position paid for my rent and food, so I was quite happy. I was in competitions in Geneva and Munich before hitting the jackpot in the Cassadó Competition. That competition was also meaningful for me because two of my heroes were on the jury, Daniil Shafran and Pierre Fournier. My career started to take off at that point.
TJ: How did you get the exclusive recording contract with Chandos?
RW: I was very lucky to have had an incredibly good run with them. It so happened that their goals at that time meshed so well my own enthusiasms. As a result, I recorded nearly everything I wanted.
They were a new label when I first met them in 1983, so they had me find my own sponsorship for my first couple of recordings. As the company grew, I became their house cellist, a role that lasted for many years. Then our relationship ended abruptly for reasons that have never been shared with me. I ended up doing one more recording a few years ago, though, the Menotti Fantasia, because another cellist dropped out.
I’ve been recording for various other companies since then, and I have another six recording sessions in the next year.
TJ: What’s left for you to record?
RW: There’s plenty more for me to do, including some standards. In October, Sanctuary will release a recording of four incredibly beautiful and unknown English concerti from the 1940’s and 1950’s. There’s a piece that was written for Casals, called “Song of the Birds,” by Herbert Murrill. There’s a Sir George Dyson piece, called “Prelude, Fantasy, and Chaconne.” There’s another by Edmund Rubbra, called “Soliloquy.” And there’s a piece by Haydn Wood, called “Philharmonic Variations.” Tragically, these first class pieces have been gathering dust for decades. Many don’t even know they exist.
I’m also recording Jonathan Delmar’s Bärenreiter edition of the Beethoven Sonatas for Nimbus, which I recorded for EMI Eminence before, but I think I play them much better now. This will come out in January. I’m also recording the Czerny version of the Kreutzer Sonata, as well as the horn sonata for Cello Classics. Next year I hope to record a Bloch CD for AVIE Records — Schelomo, Voice in the Wilderness, and the Viola Suite with orchestra. After that I hope to record the Rosza concerto and the Double Sinfonia Concertante for Sanctuary.
TJ: Your plate is certainly full.
RW: I enjoy the excitement of trying to make things happen, though it requires an enormous amount of juggling, networking, and perseverance.
TJ: Your discography certainly has a large number of pieces by British composers. Are you on a mission to promote British music?
RW: Very much so. There’s a treasure trove of music written by English composers for cello. The problem is that concert promoters rarely want to take a risk with an unknown work, so recordings are a good way to spread the word about lesser known works. I’ve never been asked to perform the Bax Concerto, for instance, which is a first rate piece.
TJ: Would you say that a lot of the pieces you have recorded have never been performed in concert, including by you?
RW: Sadly, that’s true, because it’s harder to book concerts with unknown works, but I always make my students aware of them, and I try to encourage others to widen their horizons. On the other hand, there are plenty of music lovers who are eager to hear something different, and my records help to meet that need. Once in awhile, one of my recordings makes its way into a concert promoters hands and they decide they like a piece and want to program it. We need to keep pushing the envelope so that we don’t have to play the same dozen pieces for a lifetime.
Once in awhile these pieces are given a chance. I’ve played Martinu’s First Concerto quite a bit in Europe and once in Indianapolis. The Martinu is a fantastic piece that should be played all the time. The Finzi is being requested more and more as well. I have hope that some pieces will eventually become part of the standard repertoire.
TJ: I noticed that you haven’t recorded the Elgar Concerto.
RW: I’ve steered clear of the Elgar. That piece is so identified with Jacqueline du Pré that the comparisons are inevitable, not to mention that the world does not need yet another recording of the Elgar. On the other hand, there was a need for recordings of E.J. Moeran, Bliss, Finzi, and others, so I happily recorded those. Maybe one day I’ll record the Elgar, but it’s not vital that I do.
TJ: You recorded twenty-seven Vivaldi cello concerti. Was it difficult to keep interested in playing that much Vivaldi over a short period of time?
RW: Not at all. What I found particularly interesting was how my affinity for ornamentation advanced over the year it took to record them. You will note that there is more ornamentation in the concertos that were recorded later in the year.
TJ: You are known for having an unusually long endpin. How long is it?
RW: Its total length is around 30 inches (76cm). On average it sticks out around 15 or 16 inches (40 cm), but this varies because of the many variables one encounters, such as chairs of different heights. I sit at the back of the chair, which means the endpin has to be longer so that it doesn’t rub against the seat. One significant advantage of the long endpin is that it becomes much more natural to use arm weight — in both arms — instead of pressing, so it’s less likely that one will play with unnecessary tension. It’s longer than most cellists are used to, but it works for me, and many of my students have taken to it as well.
I also like to have the cello slightly in front of the knees instead of gripping the cello between them so that I can rotate it left and right however I want. With the bent endpin, the cello tends to rotate back to the center position, which means the cellist has to expend energy keeping the cello rotated however he or she wants it. This isn’t a problem with the long endpin; it stays put. The knees are therefore freed up.
Perhaps the long endpin’s most attractive feature is that the sound is immediately bigger. I’ve always been one who likes to be able to produce as much sound as I can, and the long endpin helps me to do this. I suspect this occurs because the cello is able to vibrate as freely as possible, since there’s very little to stop it, like squeezing knees. The cello is therefore much more resonant and the sound is increased without having to increase the pressure and scratching.
TJ: Do you actively encourage your students to use the long endpin?
RW: I suggest that they try it, as long as they’re of average height, and not too short. Usually they are amazed at how much easier it is to produce a sound, which is immediately bigger.
TJ: Did you start out with a more standard length endpin and gradually lengthen it over the years?
RW: Yes, but I found that I needed a special endpin made when it reached a certain length, because the standard endpin was too thin and wobbly, or it made funny sounds inside my cello. I found somebody, Tony Manson of Super Spikes, not long ago who could make one that meets my needs. He makes them in his garage.
TJ: You mentioned that you sit back in your chair. Do you experience some reduction in mobility because of this?
RW: Not at all, because I don’t lean back. I put my backside towards the back of the chair, and I lean slightly forward, as if I am hugging the cello. The chair I use at home has a lower back, which is the sort of chair one finds on stage in concert halls, so my upper back never contacts the chair. I sit so that I can easily rock forward and stand.
TJ: Do you lose left to right mobility?
RW: None whatsoever, it’s just that my legs are more supported. I figure I’m sitting in a chair, so why not use it? I’m one hundred percent supported by it, I’m relaxing my back, I’m not holding my back in the classic straight-backed cellist way, I’m relaxing the base of my spine, and I have no reduction in mobility. I don’t see any advantage to sitting forward in the chair.
TJ: You mentioned in your Strad article that none of your teachers talked too much about these sort of issues with you.
RW: That’s right. When I studied with Baldovino, I tried to copy his way of sitting, where he had the instrument far to one side, but he was very short, so his way of sitting probably suited him, but it wasn’t right for me. Then I sat in the more standard way while studying with Piatigorsky, though he never discussed it with me. Then my endpin gradually lengthened when I was on my own. I think that there comes a point when it’s probably best to find one’s own way, and I think I’ve found it.
TJ: The picture in the Strad shows the cello being fairly centered along the axis of your body, with the cello’s neck being very close to your own neck. How do you reach the C string?
RW: That picture is not representative of how I hold the cello, actually. The “button” at the base of the cello’s neck rests on my left pectoral muscle, not on the center of my sternum. The cello’s neck should always be away from the player’s neck.
Having said this, when I play on the C string, I do rotate the cello slightly away. My right knee moves behind the cello and lifts the table a few degrees. When play on the A string, I rotate the cello the other way.
TJ: You mentioned wanting to play closer to the bridge in the Strad article and you discussed a few minutes ago how you enjoy making as big a sound as possible. Is this one of your primary goals when you play, to play with a big sound?
RW: Not always, of course, but I find that playing with a big sound suits my personality. I like a powerful, full sound, not a muffled, introverted one. I remember trying cellos with Steven Doane at a cello making competition at the Manchester Festival a few years ago. We tried instruments one after another, and all the instruments I liked had a bright, full sound, and that’s the way I play. He preferred the darker, velvety sounding cellos, and that’s the way he plays. He has a beautiful Tecchler cello, which produces a honeyed, dark sound, but I’ve always liked a Vuillaume or Gand, or other cellos that have a powerful A string. I like a certain clarity, which I think reflects a character trait in my sound palette. I enjoy other sounds when I hear them in others, but I’m more comfortable when I play with a lot of power.
TJ: What do you do in a piece like the Debussy Sonata? Do you still play near the bridge?
RW: Not necessarily, though I do prefer a forthright sound. It’s just that I like having the option of absolutely beaming through if I feel like it, not that I play like that all the time. I enjoy having a wide spectrum of sound possibilities, from subtle and ethereal to brash and penetrating.
I also like cellos where the power is not just on the A string, but across all four strings and from top to bottom. This may be due in part to the fact that I’ve played on modern instruments for a long time, which tend to have this sort of character. I now play on a Venetian instrument with unclear origins, which has quite a punchy, open sound. My other favorite cello was made by Adolphe Gant, who was the luthier for the Paris Conservatoire in the 1890’s. The first Saint-Saëns was premiered on this instrument. It’s a fantastic cello, having a warm, bright, and healthy sound. It’s a very straightforward instrument, which is what I like.
TJ: You used to play on a Strad, didn’t you?
RW: Yes, I had Amaryllis’ Strad for about a year and a half. I gave it back because it was such a huge responsibility, not to mention extremely expensive to insure. It had wonderful qualities, of course, but it wasn’t my dream cello.
TJ: I noticed that you play from the original version of Rococo Variations in your 1983 recording, as opposed to the Fitzenhagen version. Is seeking out manuscripts one of your passions?
RW: Up to a point. When I made that recording, I was amazed at how difficult it was to purchase the original Rococo, especially the cello and piano version. There have been editions that have come out here and there over the years, but they weren’t as good as they could be. Peters recently asked me to edit a new edition of the original Rococo that will come out soon, which fills in some gaps of the other editions. Piatigorsky would have been pleased because he was the one who introduced the original version to me.
TJ: What sort of music principles do you emphasize with your students?
RW: I think I’m usually very practical. When they play something and it doesn’t sound right, we work on making it sound better. It could be a technical problem, or perhaps a stylistic or color issue. When they agree that they aren’t playing something the way they want, and if I’m able to demonstrate what they have in mind, I try to explain how I do it. Simplistically speaking, it all comes back to how you use your hands and your body, and I’m always looking for practical ways for them to realize their musical goals.
I also talk a lot about how to understand what’s written. For instance, a dot can mean different things, depending on the music being played. A dot in Debussy is completely different from a dot in Beethoven, and so on. I also talk about how to approach the Bach manuscripts with imagination so that one doesn’t become enslaved by them.
My ideas are evolving all the time and I continue to learn from my students. My favorite example of this was when I taught the extremely talented Richard Bamping, who is the principal cellist with the Hong Kong Philharmonic. He came up with some of the best fingerings I’ve ever seen. They were simple and straightforward, which I eventually discovered were the product of him sightreading in lessons. For example, in the last movement of the Brahms F Major Sonata, he did this great fingering that just went up the A string, instead of the usual contortions one sees. I’ve never seen this in editions and I use it to this day because it’s so easy.
Other students have incredible staccatos and I say, “For God’s sake, show me how you do that!” Others bring interesting music that I’ve never seen before. Teaching is definitely a two-way street.
TJ: Do you try to put a lot of emotion into your playing? Where would you say you fall in the spectrum between emotional and intellectual approaches?
RW: Music is very much about emotion. At first glance, one might consider Maisky and Starker to be at opposite ends of the spectrum, but I think of them both as very emotional players. Maisky is an overtly passionate person and his playing reflects it. Starker is also very emotional, though more contained. I guess I’m somewhere in between these two players in terms of how demonstrative I am when I play.
My goal is to play theatrically without being theatrical. Piatigorsky was the ideal model for this. He played theatrically but there was hardly a movement in his face or body. One noticed his sound and what was happening with his hands because he stayed away from funny gestures. If somebody wants to be more showy, I suppose they can do it, but for me the goal is to project to the audience the power of the music.