Music journalist and critic
‘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’