Divine notes, and­com­edy

Steven Isserlis, a top cel­list, tells David Lasser­son of his taste for Bach — and Peter Cook

The Jewish Chronicle - - ARTS&BOOKS -

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

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