Raphael Wallfisch and John York

Concert date: 24 January 2016
Reviewed by: JRC

Raphael Wallfisch and John York performed at Newton Abbot's Courtenay Centre last Sunday, reaffirming nadsa's position as the premier promoter of a season of chamber music concerts in the South West.

The capacity audience doubtless had high expectations for the performance of these internationally and critically acclaimed performers: they were not to be disappointed.

It's difficult to know why some performances can be singled out as something special, but when the artists have supreme greatness they exude an embracing confidence. Raphael and John had no need for flamboyant gestures or exaggerated rubati, our connection with the composer felt immediate.

The light hearted and lyrical way the concert started was with Schumann's Funf Stucke im Volkston, the first piece being lively and dancelike, with the occasional humorous plods. How the contrast with the second piece [Langsam] was so perfectly achieved was remarkable. Of course the phrasing was longer and the tempo slower; but it almost seemed as though they were playing different instruments! The mellow tones of the cello flowed through beautiful melodic lines and the ebb and flow balance with the piano was exquisite without being saccharine. Subsequent character pieces took us to interesting and varied romantic themes, then bold and joyous, and ended with a mixture of delicacy and strength.

And then we had Brahms Sonata for Cello and Piano in D. However many renderings or times one had heard this work previously, this was a moment to treasure. The first movement was sublime. Emphatic chords of the second movement seemed to challenge the romantic sentimental style however, this was soon reasserted by the development of new melodic themes. The third moment had the delicate business of a rain theme, as well as a continuation of the second movement's theme and tantalising hints of the first movement, which are achingly heart-rending in that they never do fully return. Both Schumann and this duo left us wanting more.

Raphael in his introduction after the interval congratulated NADSA for promoting such successful concerts and said “long may it continue”: sentiments echoed by many.

Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No 4 in C [from his late period] opened with an Andante that in the hands of Wallfisch and York was a smooth balanced dream. The Allegro vivace burst forth upon us and continued to challenge the senses with wild changes of dynamics. The sombre Adagio gave way to hints of the previous Andante dream, and then the spirits were lifted by a demanding but playful variety in the Allegro vivace.

The final work was Rebecca Clarke's Sonata for Cello and Piano which tied for first place [with Ernest Bloch] in a 1919 competition. Not surprisingly it is an interesting work both regarding its composition and its requirement for virtuosity. The opening immediately put me in mind of Vaughan Williams; but Rebecca Clarke was soon ploughing her own, more tempestuous, furrow. In this first Impetuoso movement impressionism seemed never far away whereas in the Vivace I found myself recalling Stravinsky whilst scarcely being conscious that wondrous technical feats were being performed on both piano and cello. The concluding Adagio has a lyrical theme that was given a moving intensity before a crescendo climax and a gentle return to lyricism and an intense even abrupt ending. A wonderful introduction to an unfamiliar remarkable work.

The audience were spellbound, but erupted into applause which was rewarded by an encore. John York said that after “all that” we probably would like something calming, and they played an early work by Rachmaninov, a prelude for Cello and piano. Indeed it was calming.

We all knew that Raphael Wallfisch and John York's natural habitat is the heady world of the international musical stage. It was very heartening to experience their performance at our provincial venue at Newton Abbot and eagerly look forward to a return visit.