He­len Wal­lace

Mu­sic jour­nal­ist and critic

BBC Music Magazine - - Welcome - PHO­TOG­RA­PHY: JOHN MIL­LAR

‘I first heard Steven Isserlis play in 1990 and he made an in­deli­ble im­pres­sion. There’s been no let-up in the in­ten­sity of his fo­cus since – it was great to catch up with him and find him just as pas­sion­ately engaged.’

‘Stop, look!’ Steven Isserlis has a re­volv­ing dis­play of pho­to­graphs up on a shelf. ★e wants me to see a pic­ture of him­self sit­ting on the same ter­race in the south of France on which his beloved Fauré was pho­tographed near the end of his life. Whether lis­ten­ing to Isserlis per­form or talk, there’s a vivid sense of an on-go­ing conversation with the great com­posers, be it Fauré, Schu­mann, Beethoven or Brahms. ★is en­thu­si­asm is ir­re­press­ible: as he says, mu­sic is a vo­ca­tion and a hobby, not sim­ply a pro­fes­sion.

The pic­ture was taken by his part­ner, Joanna Ber­gin. Stand­ing in the kitchen of his Lon­don home, lit by dap­pled leaf-light from the gar­den, I re­call the last time I stood there, in the 1990s, and be­ing handed a cup of tea by his elfin wife, the flautist Pauline Mara who died in 2010. Their son Gabriel must have been a tod­dler. More than 20 years later, Gabriel is grown up and lives up­stairs with his girl­friend, one of the vi­o­lin­ists of the Bar­bican Quar­tet –‘We can’t hear each other prac­tise!’ laughs Isserlis. ★is string-play­ing sis­ters An­nette and Rachel drop in, and friends such as pi­anist Stephen ★ough and cel­list David Water­man are around the cor­ner – it’s like a fam­ily re­built. ‘It seems I do make friends,’ he says, as if sur­prised. And what friends. They’ll be out in force on 17 De­cem­ber at his 60th birth­day con­cert at Wig­more ★all, with pi­anists Radu Lupu and An­drás Schiff, bari­tone Si­mon Keenly­side and vi­o­lin­ist Joshua Bell on the bill. It’s al­ready sold out.

‘I never wanted to be a big-time soloist – I ap­proach concertos as cham­ber mu­sic’

AS WE SIT DOWN in his com­fort­ingly lived-in din­ing room he’s keen to point out he’s not ‘nearly’ 60 – yet. Cer­tainly, the curly mop may be grey but his out­look is de­cid­edly youth­ful. Steven Isserlis

CBE is artis­tic di­rec­tor of the leg­endary In­ter­na­tional Mu­si­cians Sem­i­nar at Prus­sia Cove, owner of a Wig­more Hall Medal and many more, but when he re­ports hear­ing his son de­scribe him as ‘a younger brother – cheeky bug­ger!’ you can be­lieve it. ‘I think he thinks I’m rather silly, beyond help. He’s very funny,’ says Isserlis.

In fact, Isserlis is a younger brother, one of three chil­dren, the only son and ‘spoilt rot­ten’. He now ac­knowl­edges that it can­not have been easy for his sis­ters to have this pre­co­cious young sib­ling with an over-size ego. ‘I think they had dif­fi­cul­ties,’ he says, ‘but they for­gave me be­cause they are deeply good peo­ple. And, in the end, we’re all cham­ber mu­si­cians. I never wanted to be a big-time, me me me soloist. Ev­ery con­certo I play I ap­proach as cham­ber mu­sic.’

Mu­si­cally, this is true. And yet, he is also a big-time soloist, and can be iras­ci­ble and de­mand­ing. In his own words, he is a ‘cel­list of (and out of) sorts.’ ‘It’s my English-jewish hu­mour,’ he ex­plains, ‘I’m never abra­sive about mu­sic, but I can be gloomy.’ A joke to il­lus­trate: ‘Why don’t Jews take as­pirin? Be­cause it dulls the pain.’ What­ever his suc­cesses, he’s thin­skinned, vul­ner­a­ble. ‘I wish I could say I didn’t mind crit­i­cism but I get dev­as­tated by a bad re­view, es­pe­cially if I think there’s a grain of truth in it. Some­times I can laugh: one re­cent re­view said I was like a Span­ish wa­ter dog! I for­get good re­views, but I can re­cite ev­ery bad re­view from mem­ory.’

Steven Isserlis oc­cu­pies a sin­gu­lar place, both in Bri­tish mu­si­cal life and the wider cello world. Fiercely in­di­vid­ual, he was taught by Jane Cowan out­side the con­ser­va­toire sys­tem, and then played on gut strings when no one but Baroque cel­lists used them – that’s chang­ing now, with play­ers such as Guy John­ston, Natalie Clein and Ni­co­las Alt­staedt all adopt­ing them. And he has pur­sued a sin­gle-minded strat­egy of cham­pi­oning and metic­u­lously re­search­ing com­posers and works he loves, cre­at­ing a string of peer­less record­ings on, pri­mar­ily, the Hype­r­ion la­bel, al­ways with out­stand­ing pi­anists and con­duc­tors. Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Schu­mann, Fauré, De­bussy, Bridge, Men­delssohn and Grieg, Thomas Adès, Stephen Hough, El­gar and Wal­ton, Mart­inů, Shostakovich and Prokofiev, Julius Isserlis, Rach­mani­nov and Franck, and now Chopin and Schu­bert: it is truly a col­lec­tion to be cher­ished. In all of th­ese great works, he has opened up new di­men­sions, through deep in­ter­ro­ga­tion, driven by love. Think­ing of his play­ing calls to mind a quote from the Amer­i­can hu­mourist James Thurber he once shared: ‘There are two kinds of light, the glow which il­lu­mi­nates, and the glare that ob­scures.’ Isserlis’s art is firmly of the for­mer type.

While he may not be known as a ‘con­tem­po­rary’ cham­pion, the few new works writ­ten for Isserlis have been highly sig­nif­i­cant: György Kurtág, a friend, wrote For Steven: in me­mo­riam Pauline Mara and Hi­lary’s Jig for him. And I would con­test that Thomas Adès’s vi­sion­ary Lieux retrou­vés is the great­est cham­ber work writ­ten for cello in the last quar­ter cen­tury. Isserlis then per­suaded Adès to turn it into a daz­zling or­ches­tral piece: ‘Of course, he then cre­ated some­thing new, in­cred­i­ble. I re­ally did think the piece was im­pos­si­ble when I started, it is so dif­fi­cult. It took a very long time to learn, but once the record­ing was made, the way was open for oth­ers. To think I’ve played a part in that does give me sat­is­fac­tion. I re­mem­ber Daniil Shafran say­ing that of Prokofiev’s Sin­fo­nia Con­cer­tante – no one thought any­one ex­cept Mstislav Rostropovich would ever be able to play it. It’s been great to wit­ness oth­ers tak­ing it up: Colin Carr came to play Lieux retrou­vés to me the other day, bloody good it was too. Some­thing else might be hap­pen­ing with Tom – I can’t say more.’

He felt more pos­ses­sive of John Tavener’s med­i­ta­tion The Pro­tect­ing Veil, the work that put him on the map as a strug­gling young cel­list in 1990. ‘When ev­ery­one started record­ing that work I did feel a bit like “that’s mine!” but I know I shouldn’t have,’ says Isserlis. ‘I had a very close re­la­tion­ship with John. I was so up­set when he died. A BBC pro­ducer phoned me be­fore I was about to do a con­cert in Am­s­ter­dam and I was dev­as­tated. He had been ill, but he was ac­tu­ally get­ting bet­ter, and then sud­denly he was gone. I didn’t feel like play­ing, but I ded­i­cated Bloch’s From Jewish Life to him that night, which was ap­pro­pri­ate, so tragic and heart­felt.’

In the af­ter­math he dreamed about him of­ten, and in the last dream Tavener gave Isserlis an in­struc­tion: ‘He clearly said to me, “you have to ar­range my last com­pleted piece for cel­los. Not the Dante piece.” The next morn­ing I rang up his widow Maryanna and she laughed, telling me that his last work was called It is fin­ished – typ­i­cally melo­dra­matic – but that it wouldn’t work for cel­los. I put it down to just a dream, but then I ran into James Rush­ton, his pub­lisher from Mu­sic Sales, who in­formed me that there had been an­other choral piece called Pre­ces and Re­sponses. He sent it to me and the moment I saw it I knew it would be per­fect: a work for eight voices tran­scribed for eight cel­los, ab­so­lutely beau­ti­ful. We per­formed it in Ox­ford with his Shake­speare son­net set­ting No longer mourn for me – an­other mes­sage I take se­ri­ously.’

Of all the projects Isserlis yearns to com­plete, record­ing Tavener’s ma­jor late works is top of the list: ‘We recorded the Pre­ces and Re­sponses and No longer mourn for me in an Ox­ford col­lege chapel, now I need to add The Death of Ivan Ilyich for bass-bari­tone and or­ches­tra, Ma­havakyas songs for so­prano and cello with Pa­tri­cia Rozario, Mahámá­tar for Sufi singer, cello and or­ches­tra and – time per­mit­ting – Pop­ule meus for cello and or­ches­tra. It’s such an enor­mous, ex­pen­sive project I’m go­ing to have to raise spon­sor­ship for

it – which I’m ab­so­lutely hope­less at. We’ll see.’ Bene­fac­tors, take note.

His other long-term plan is to make a cello ar­range­ment of, and record, Schu­mann’s tem­pes­tu­ous Vi­o­lin Sonata No. 2 in D mi­nor. ‘I was teach­ing this vi­o­lin sonata in Prus­sia Cove re­cently and I just fell in love with it. I don’t know how I’d never re­ally known it, it’s one of his great­est works,’ says Isserlis. ‘The vi­o­lin part is writ­ten so low it ac­tu­ally lends it­self very well to the cello, un­like, say Brahms’s vi­o­lin sonatas. And the Schu­mann vi­o­lin sonatas are ne­glected by vi­o­lin­ists, so I feel jus­ti­fied. I will even­tu­ally get the nerve up to per­form it in pub­lic… I take a very long time to learn any­thing new.’

Schu­mann has been a pas­sion of Isserlis’s for as long as he can re­mem­ber, and he is de­lighted by the shift in rep­u­ta­tion the com­poser has un­der­gone: ‘No one would dream of call­ing the Cello Con­certo a “weak” work now, or the sym­phonies.’ He has vil­i­fied Clara for her mis­guided de­struc­tion of the com­poser’s vi­sion­ary last works after his death. So

I’m amused that he has re­cently over­come his an­tipa­thy and in­cluded her Op. 22 Ro­mances in his fas­ci­nat­ing pro­gramme, ‘Com­posers and their Muses’ (Wig­more Hall, 29 Septem­ber). ‘Her ro­mances are beau­ti­ful, and they soften my feel­ings to­wards her: any­one who can write mu­sic as ten­der as that can’t be all bad,’ he ex­plains. ‘I un­der­stand the ter­ri­ble hard life she en­dured, the night­mare of her hus­band’s mad­ness, but the way she treated her chil­dren I find hard to for­give.’ Also in the line-up is Au­gusta Holmès, in­spi­ra­tion to César Franck, and her Ro­man­tic La vi­sion de la Reine, and Mart­inu’s gifted pro­tegée, Vítezslava Kaprálová, who died trag­i­cally young. We agree that her Ri­tour­nelle is a crack­ing work. As Isserlis writes, ‘There’s a vigour, a con­fi­dence, a pas­sion­ate élan to the mu­sic that can­not be taught – all the more ex­tra­or­di­nary given it is al­most cer­tainly her swan­song.’

Isserlis is a gifted cu­ra­tor, and has an unerring in­stinct for qual­ity: his ap­par­ently fash­ion­able in­clu­sion of women com­posers is no tick-box en­ter­prise. But ad­ven­tur­ous pro­gram­ming is risky, he ac­knowl­edges, and harder to sell to au­di­ences, how­ever en­light­ened. He has cre­ated op­por­tu­ni­ties to per­form late Fauré, but still finds the works lack recog­ni­tion, even among mu­si­cians. ‘Fauré’s late cham­ber mu­sic is mirac­u­lous, it sim­ply never touches the ground. Re­cently I was in Paris play­ing his Sec­ond Pi­ano Quar­tet, and the vi­o­list turned up with the first pi­ano quar­tet say­ing “Oh! I didn’t know he wrote two.” Peo­ple in the au­di­ence said after­wards, “Th­ese are amaz­ing pieces but we didn’t know them”. This is in France!’ We dis­cuss the two ex­tra­or­di­nary Cello Sonatas at length. His re­cent record­ing of the First Sonata with Con­nie Shih trans­formed it for me into some­thing ut­terly pro­found. He, too, heard it anew: ‘I was teach­ing it and sud­denly I re­alised that there are two com­pletely sep­a­rate ideas in the slow move­ment, and you need to think about them dif­fer­ently. Then it all made sense to me. But I’ve also got Con­nie, who plays it like a dream and is so in­spir­ing; that’s cru­cial.’

We talk of his re­cent record­ing of

Chopin and Schu­bert sonatas with an 1851 Erard pi­ano. ‘Dénes [Vár­jon] hadn’t played

‘You should never fin­ish your ex­plo­ration of the mu­sic – there is no end to it’

such a pi­ano be­fore but he fell in love with it,’ ex­plains Isserlis. ‘Chopin was fa­mous for his in­cred­i­bly del­i­cate, quiet play­ing, and us­ing this in­stru­ment al­lowed all the pedal marks to be ob­served with­out sound­ing smudged. It was so ex­cit­ing for me be­cause Dénes could give ev­ery­thing he had with­out ever drown­ing me out.

The bal­ance be­tween the airy Erard and the tawny-tex­tured fo­cus of Isserlis’s Stradi­var­ius does, in­deed, seem ideally suited to Chopin’s quixotic master­piece.

Fortepi­ano fea­tured in Isserlis’s joy­ous Men­delssohn record­ings with Melvyn Tan back in the 1990s, and in his com­plete Beethoven sonatas with Robert Levin. ‘I would hap­pily spend the rest of my life work­ing on those five sonatas. There is not one note that I do not love. The last two sonatas are the gate­way to late Beethoven.’

He ad­mits he didn’t al­ways feel this way: ‘Look­ing back, as a young man I didn’t “get” Beethoven; I think I was over-com­pli­cat­ing the mu­sic. In fact, of all com­posers, he the best at telling you in his per­for­mance di­rec­tions ex­actly what you need to know. Ev­ery note of his mu­sic ra­di­ates a pos­i­tive, af­fir­ma­tive strength which gives us courage for our lives. His mu­sic is ir­re­sistible, even if I did try to re­sist it all those years ago.’

On one visit to Ger­many he played Beethoven’s cello. ‘It’s soft but beau­ti­ful – a Vene­tian cello which hadn’t been played for 50 years.’ His schol­arly fas­ci­na­tion for all things cello is well known: who else could have drawn out the beau­ti­ful, ghostly voice of a box-like ‘trench’ cello from the First World War, as he did on a re­cent record­ing? Yet he avoids cello fes­ti­vals. I tease him about a cello se­ries I was in­volved in, in which – in­fu­ri­at­ingly, for me – he didn’t take part. His de­fence is elo­quent: ‘It’s the idea that the in­stru­ment it­self comes be­fore the mu­sic that wor­ries me. Now, a Schu­mann Fes­ti­val, that would be dif­fer­ent!’

His words echo a pas­sage that struck a chord for me in his en­chant­ing edi­tion of Schu­mann’s own Advice to young mu­si­cians: ‘as you grown up, com­mu­ni­cate more with scores than with vir­tu­osi’. Isserlis ex­pands on the theme, not­ing that young play­ers of­ten have ‘player’ he­roes who in­spire them, but there comes a time when the score alone must be their guide. ‘The only per­son to whom a ma­ture mu­si­cian is an­swer­able is the com­poser,’ he writes, ‘any third party – the edi­tor, an­other in­ter­preter etc – is an ir­rel­e­vance. Why talk to a vicar when you can talk to God?’

That idea of in­still­ing the young with a sound ap­proach brings us to the In­ter­na­tional Mu­si­cians Sem­i­nar at Prus­sia Cove, the cliff-top es­tate near Pen­zance in the far west of Corn­wall, where dis­tin­guished mu­si­cians and young play­ers from all over the globe gather to make cham­ber mu­sic. Isserlis in­her­ited the artis­tic di­rec­tor­ship from the leg­endary Hun­gar­ian Sán­dor Végh and it has be­come a lab­o­ra­tory for his work­ing life. What does he want those young play­ers to take away from the ex­pe­ri­ence? ‘The peo­ple they will en­counter there – Tom Adès, pi­anist Ferenc Ra­dos, György Kurtág – have great minds; they are ide­al­ists, purists. I think the young have that, but it can get cor­rupted out of them. Bad teach­ers en­cour­age them to think more about them­selves, their suc­cess and the “ef­fect” their play­ing has. At Prus­sia Cove mu­sic comes be­fore ev­ery­thing. I want them to go away hav­ing looked more deeply into it. Ra­dos, for ex­am­ple, as an X-ray vi­sion: you are go­ing to come away from time spent with him with a dif­fer­ent set of val­ues. I can’t stand the way some play­ers sweep in and say “this is the way it has to go”. You should never fin­ish your ex­plo­ration of the mu­sic – there is no end to it. Ev­ery time you pick up the bow is a fresh conversation.’

Isserlis’s lat­est record­ing, of Chopin and Schu­bert, is out on Hype­r­ion in Oct and will be re­viewed next is­sue. His 60th birth­day con­cert is on 17 De­cem­ber at Wig­more Hall

Steps to suc­cess: Steven Isserlis out­side his home in Lon­don

String syn­chronic­ity: Joshua Bell and Isserlis with the Acad­emy of St Martin in the Fields at Birm­ing­ham’s Sym­phony Hall in 2016

A cello in prayer:Isserlis and John Tavener pick up a Mer­cury Mu­sic Prize in 1997; (above) the record­ing of The Pro­tect­ing Veil, re­leased in 1990

Solo study: 'the only per­son to whom a ma­ture mu­si­cian is an­swer­able is the com­poser’

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