Divine notes, andcomedy
Steven Isserlis, a top cellist, tells David Lasserson of his taste for Bach — and Peter Cook
STEVEN ISSERLIS is remaining tightlipped about his selections of favourite music for an upcoming evening celebrating his musical life. However, a Russian element is almost guaranteed. The 48-year-old leading concert cellist descends from Russian musical aristocracy. Or should that be the Soviet musical elite? His grandfather, Julius Isserlis, a performer and composer, was a hero of the Revolution — at least until he defected.
“His name is still on the wall at Moscow Conservatoire,” says Isserlis. “He was a young gold-medallist, became a professor, and played with Brandokov, a cellist who Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky wrote for. In 1922 he was one of 12 Soviet musicians selected by Lenin to travel to the West as cultural ambassadors. None of them came back.”
Grandfather Isserlis took refuge in the US, then settled in Vienna. In 1938, Nazi antisemitism forced him to move again, this time to Britain, where Ste- ven was born. There is a poignant aspect to the legacy. Not every musician can perform the music of a grandparent, as Isserlis can and does. “I’ve been playing his Ballade recently. He wrote very romantic music. [Conductor] András Schiff said to me after hearing it: ‘I wish I had a grandparent who wrote music for me like that.’”
Programming Russian music brings Isserlis close to one of his passions, an unusual one for an Anglo-Jewish boy — music written for the Russian Orthodox Church. “I used to go to services, mainly to hear the music. Listen to the hymns, the low basses, the passion. I think there are similarities between this music and Jewish cantorial music.”
It was this enthusiasm that led him to approach composer John Tavener to write one of the big classical hits of the ’90s, The Protecting Veil, a rapturous work in which solo cello and accompanying strings attempt “to capture some of the almost cosmic power of the Mother of God”.
The ambition and sweep of the work suited Isserlis’s own rapturous playing. But Isserlis is equally at home in Jewish music. He has just returned from Israel, where he gave an extraordinary performance of Ernst Bloch’s majestic 1915 work, Shelomo, based on passages taken from Ecclesiastes.
The occasion was a recreation of the opening concert of the Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv, inaugurated as the home of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra 50 years ago.
One task cellists are often given in the Jewish world is the performance of Kol Nidrei, in Max Bruch’s setting. Isserlis was given a word of advice about this particular version.
“I went to play it to [Israeli composer] Joachim Stutschewsky, a man who had done a great deal of research into Hebraic melody, and he told me it wasn’t authentic, that Bruch wasn’t Jewish, and that I should play his version instead,” he says.
The Israel Philharmonic has invited him again this season. “They’re so friendly. After that I went to play with a lovely orchestra in Denmark, but they were so shy I didn’t talk to anyone.”
Isserlis has just climbed the biggest mountain facing any cellist — recording all six Bach cello suites. Why did it take him so long to do it? “I didn’t want to record until I was ready. I had a lot of requests. In the end it was my father who persuaded me.”
Isserlis’s contribution to the Bach recording canon has already attracted critical acclaim, winning the 2007 Classic FM/ Gramophone Instrumental Award.
So is he prepared to reveal anything at all about his own choices of music? “It’s quite random, actually. I’m steering away from friends. There’ll be some comedy.”
Nothing more specific? “OK, Kleiber’s Beethoven symphonies. They have that energy, vitality and authority. And something from Peter Cook.” Steven Isserlis talks about the music that has shaped his life on Tuesday November 13 at 8pm at the London Jewish Cultural Centre, London NW11. Tickets on 020 8457 5000 or at www.ljcc.org.uk
Steven Isserlis: at home with Jewish classical and Russian church music