by Graham Fitch
I had the great privilege to embark on my postgraduate studies with Peter Wallfisch, studying with him from 1980 for two years (but returning on occasion thereafter). During my time with this remarkable man, my playing blossomed and I grew not only as a pianist but also as a musician. I look back on this chapter of my life with gratitude and a tremendous fondness for a teacher I came to love dearly. Last year, when I visited his widow, Anita Lasker, I walked into the studio where I had had my inspiring, magical lessons and was overcome with emotion as so many wonderful memories flooded back.
Peter Wallfisch was born in Breslau in 1924, and had sought refuge from Hitler’s Germany in Jerusalem and Paris before settling in Britain in 1952. His tenure as a professor of piano at the RCM was from 1973 to 1991, during which time he influenced many notable pianists now active in the profession. He was head of a musical dynasty that includes his wife Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, (cellist and founder of the ECO), son Raphael (international concert cellist), daughter-in-law Elisabeth (noted violinist), grandsons Benjamin (composer and conductor) and Simon (cellist and tenor). Peter was a musicians’ musician who is remembered not only a solo pianist but as an ensemble musician. His lineage was the Germanic tradition from Bach right through to Reger and Krenek, but he also championed very many British composers (including Kenneth Leighton, whom he raved about) and other slightly unusual composers (such as Novak). He confessed to having a passion for organ music, and he was not overly keen on Chopin or Rachmaninov.
One time I arrived for my lesson and Peter was not in a good mood. Sensing this, I asked him if he was OK and he pointed to a stack of scores on his desk, bemoaning the fact that he had been roped into learning it for the BBC and for concert engagements. It turned out to be by Frank Bridge, whose music at that time had fallen into neglect. The following week, I asked him how he was getting on with it. His face lit up and he enthused for many minutes on the undiscovered qualities of this music and how wonderful it was. Peter was at the forefront of the revival of interest in Bridge’s music, which rubbed off onto me. He immediately suggested I learn the two pieces “In Autumn” and I had much success with them. Among my prize possessions is Peter’s score of the sonata, littered in his inimitable way with crayon and pencil markings that only he could make sense of, certainly a testament to a practical musician!
I was officially registered for lessons with Peter at the Royal College of Music, but after a while my lessons moved from room 68 at the RCM to Peter’s home in Kensal Rise. Not only did I occasionally get to stay for tea and wonderful conversation with Peter and Anita (and Millie the cat), but my good fortune extended to lessons which went on all afternoon. Three hours was the norm, always without a break, and usually on just one work. He gave of himself unstintingly and generously and as I was walking down his garden path after the lesson, I felt that I had been given the ultimate secrets to the music we had just worked on. This went way beyond a mere piano lesson. There was one time I took a very half-baked Beethoven’s op. 109 sonata along, and yet after my lesson felt that I could almost have deputised for Barenboim that very night, such was the completeness of my understanding of Beethoven’s message. There were many such experiences where I left having had more than a lesson, but a Gestalt of the music – an experience of the essence of the whole picture even though my playing of it might yet be primitive. Pieces that stand out are the Brahms-Handel Variations, Bartok’s Third Concerto, Mendelssohn’s “Variations Sérieuses”, some Debussy and plenty of Bach, Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven…
It is difficult to describe how Peter taught. One thing I can say is he never, ever talked about piano playing as an activity in itself. His comments were always about the music. He would hear what I had brought in and would always give a totally honest appraisal of what he had heard. He was never one to mince his words, thus you could always rely on his reactions and comments as a very accurate barometer of how you’d done. If he didn’t like it, you would certainly know; if he did like it, he could ooze genuine enthusiasm and encouragement. You always knew where you stood with Peter.
Technical difficulties seemed to melt away, since through his lengthy verdicts and fabulous verbal descriptions of what he wanted to hear (he rarely demonstrated) you were literally infected with a mental and aural picture that left no doubt as to how the piece should go. There were so many times when, before he had finished talking, I was itching to play again because I knew exactly what he meant. After he had said what he needed, I would play again. What was difficult before now often wasn’t at all because I had an ultra clear picture of the sound, of the composer’s meaning. If you did ask for technical help – I mean specific pianistic help – he might even get annoyed. He really did not like talking about piano playing per se. Once I asked him what exercises he practised (I knew he had quite a warm-up ritual for himself). Again, he dismissed my question, saying that he did not want to burden me with it, nor did he like to do his dirty laundry in public.
There are SO many individual lessons I remember crystal clearly. During a lesson on op. 109 I missed a sforzando accent in the second movement and received a very painful dig in the ribs which taught me way better than words could have. Now, whenever I get to that place in the sonata, I feel a psychosomatic twinge of pain. There was the tail end of someone else’s lesson who crowed that he had managed to learn a Beethoven sonata in a week. Peter went red in the face and exploded: “How dare you say that! It took Beethoven months of time, sweat and blood to write that sonata, and you claim you can play it in one week!”. Another lesson that stands out for me was on a Bach Prelude and Fugue. After I finished he told me it was excellent and that he could not fault it. But I noticed a trace of disdain in his voice, and sure enough he said to stop it sounding sterile and boring, I had to find my own voice with the piece. When pushed, he made a few vague suggestions but would not be specific and it took a while before I figured out what he meant, that he expected me to take personal ownership of the piece.
Even after I had gone to America on my Fulbright Scholarship, I would return to Peter to play for him. I always received the same warm welcome and uncompromising advice. His influence is still with me to this day. I very often think of him, and I still miss him!
Graham Fitch is a London-based pianist, piano teacher, piano adjudicator, piano examiner, piano lecturer and writer/commentator on piano. www.grahamfitch.com