Opera + Classical Music Features

Cellist Steven Isserlis: “There is so much hidden away that people don’t play” – Interview

It has already been a year for Steven Isserlis to remember. Not least because he has marked his 50th birthday, the celebration of which took place in the form of a concert at the Wigmore Hall. Alongside this he has revisited the music of his favourite composer, Robert Schumann.

When we met, however, Isserlis was in the middle of a run of concerts with long-time accompanist Olli Mustonen, a typically varied program taking in less familiar aspects of the 20th century repertoire. It sums Isserlis up neatly as an exponent of the masterpiece, but also of the hidden gem – as our chat was to reinforce.

Always genial, polite and enthusiastic, it’s easy to see why the cellist has been held up as an appropriate representative for classical music. That much is immediately clear when I ask him if he enjoyed his 50th birthday concert. He smiles. “Well I was a bit tense at first, because I messed up on tickets for a start – I promised people tickets and then realised I didn’t have enough! There was that pressure to start with, but then Radu Lupu came on stage to play Schumann and I was really relaxed then, it was fabulous. It was a great occasion, and dinner afterwards was great fun too.”

The Wigmore Hall seems to have been the best choice of venue for the concert. He nods “It was the only place really for me, it’s my musical home.” It brings to mind previous occasions in which I have seen Isserlis at the venue, the pick of which was a Beethoven Day’ in 2007, together with Robert Levin playing the fortepiano. He remembers it fondly. “It was fantastic with a fortepiano, especially the earlier Op.5 sonatas – it makes them so much easier to play. It’s good for me because I have to play soft, and be careful not to play too loud. To play the whole lot from one to five is amazing, especially when you get to play the fugue in the fifth sonata, it feels like the end of such a journey – you’re completely exhausted when you get there. Of course we had the variations and the arrangement of the horn sonata in the morning as well. It was quite a day!”

Mustonen is a regular modern piano accompanist for Isserlis, the pair having played together for several decades. On the recent tour Isserlis performed his Cello Sonata, presumably dedicated to the cellist? “It isn’t actually, it was written at a time when we weren’t really playing together – and it’s dedicated to our mutual friend Heinrich Schiff. It was premiered by my extremely talented ex-pupil, Daniel Mller-Schott.”

He is gushing when I ask how Mustonen has written for the cello. “Very well. He did kindly say that he had my sound in his ear when he was composing it, and he has written quite a bit. We’ve played together so much, he knows what it’s like to write for the cello. It’s different and unusual writing though. He’s very talented, it’s very different from his earlier music in terms of spirit, it’s much freer.”

Isserlis played Malinconia by Sibelius (“very tempestuous, very epic – it’s like a tone poem”) and the third sonata of Bohuslav Martinu. With the fuss of three big anniversary composers this year – Purcell, Haydn and Mendelssohn – it’s easy to forget this is also 50 years since the Czech composer’s death. “Yes it is,” says Isserlis firmly, “as it is a major anniversary, and there is a real danger of Martinu being overlooked. It’s amazing music, those sonatas are fantastic – and there’s so much good music he has written.”

Prior to the Schumann disc, Isserlis recorded Bach for the first time – and was notably daunted by the occasion. Did he feel the same pressure returning to his favourite composer? “Every recording’s daunting!” he says with feeling. “But with this disc the sessions were really relaxed, and it was a really positive experience.”

With a considerable discography at his disposal, are there gaps he wishes to fill? “Well oddly I have never recorded the Beethoven Sonatas, nor the Dvorak Concerto, the Walton concerto. Those are pieces I would really like to record in time. For the moment I’m doing a recording for BIS in the Autumn of all the arrangements that have been made for me. For that I’m recording a Debussy Suite, and will arrange some other Debussy pieces.”

This will be the second disc Isserlis has made for the Swedish label, following on from the successful Children’s Cello three years back. Isserlis has a natural affinity for the young, whether writing or playing – possibly because he himself still has a healthy inner child within him. “It was a fun project,” he says of the disc.

He writes books for children, too – an area not many classical musicians would have the ability to embrace. “Or the desire to do it”, he says. “I love working with children, I have a children’s series in New York three times a year which I absolutely love. With my books, like The Little Red Violin, and Goldipegs And The Three Cellos, it’s about shedding that severe image.”

Does that mean he thinks people are daunted by classical music? “I do in some cases, and it’s sad. It’s the way bad classical musicians do crossover, and I think it’s part of the desire to make money. For me it’s people who don’t understand classical music that give it a bad press. Classical music is certainly not stuffy, and nor is the world of classical music. Just because we dress in a costume – sort of – doesn’t make it so! It just depends how you approach it. I guess that’s why I enjoy playing for children, because they’re not daunted by it.”

Finally I touch on Isserlis’ approach to programming, where he will often address this issue by programming something new alongside something familiar. He smiles. “There is so much hidden away that people don’t play, in my opinion – and for me there is certainly no greater sonata in the 20th century than the second Faur sonata!” His infectious enthusiasm carries with him to the stage, one of the reasons audiences warm to him so, and why we can expect him to unearth more gems in his sixth decade.

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Cellist Steven Isserlis: “There is so much hidden away that people don’t play” – Interview
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