Steven Isserlis was born in London on December 19, 1958 into a musical family. His grandfather, Julius Isserlis, who was a Russian Jew, was one of 12 musicians allowed to leave Russia in the 1920s to promote Russian culture, but he never returned. The name 'Isserlis' is one of many European variations of the Hebrew name 'Israel'. On the Midweek Programme on 29 January 2014, Isserlis revealed that on arrival in Vienna in 1922, his pianist grandfather and father found a flat, but the 102-year-old landlady refused to take in a musician, because her aunt had a previous musician tenant who was noisy and would spit on the floor—this tenant was Ludwig van Beethoven! Steven's mother was a piano teacher, and his father was a keen amateur musician. His sister Annette is a viola player, and his other sister Rachel is a violinist. Isserlis has described how "playing music, playing together", was an integral part of his early family life.
Steven went to the City of London School, which he left at the age of 14 to move to Scotland to study under the tutelage of Jane Cowan. From 1976 to 1978 Isserlis studied at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music with Richard Kapuscinski.Isserlis performs solo, chamber concerts, and with orchestra. He is a staunch advocate of lesser-known composers and of greater access to music for younger audiences. He is committed to authentic performance, and frequently appears with the foremost period instrument orchestras. He has also published several editions and arrangements, principally for Faber Music, and was an advisor on new editions of Beethoven's cello sonatas and cello variations, as well as the cello concertos of Dvořák and Elgar. He commissioned a new completion of Prokofiev's Cello Concertino from the Udmurt musicologist Vladimir Blok, which was premiered on 11 April 1997 in Cardiff, with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Mark Wigglesworth. Isserlis has also premiered works by composers John Tavener (who wrote The Protecting Veil for the cellist), Lowell Liebermann, Carl Vine, David Matthews, John Woolrich, Wolfgang Rihm, Mikhail Pletnev and Thomas Adès.
Isserlis plays the Marquis de Corberon cello on loan from the Royal Academy of Music. He also part-owns a Montagnana cello from 1740 and a Guadagnini cello of 1745, which he played exclusively from 1979 to 1998 and part-owns with David Waterman, cellist of the Endellion Quartet. His De Munck Stradivarius was returned to the Nippon Music Foundation in May 2011. Isserlis made his debut directing from the cello in February 2008, with the Irish Chamber Orchestra at the National Concert Hall in Dublin.
He has organized a number of festivals with long-term collaborators such as Joshua Bell, Stephen Hough, Mikhail Pletnev, András Schiff, Denes Varjon, Olli Mustonen and Tabea Zimmermann, and actors Barry Humphries and Simon Callow. He is artistic director of the International Musicians Seminar, Prussia Cove in West Cornwall, where he both performs and teaches.
Isserlis's recordings reflect the breadth and eclecticism of his repertoire. His most recent release of reVisions for BIS records includes arrangements and reconstruction of works by Debussy, Ravel, Prokofiev and Bloch. For Hyperion Records, Isserlis has recorded Schumann's music for cello and piano, and the complete solo cello suites by Bach, which has won many awards, including Listeners' Disc of the Year on BBC Radio 3's CD Review, Gramophone's Instrumental Disc of the Year, and "Critic's Choice" at the 2008 Classical Brits. Other releases include two recordings with Stephen Hough: the Brahms sonatas, coupled with works by Dvořák and Suk; a highly acclaimed disc of children's cello music for BIS; and a recording with Thomas Adès of his new piece Lieux Retrouves. Recent releases included a disc in 2013 of the Dvorak Cello Concerto with the Daniel Harding and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra on Hyperion and Martinu's complete cello sonatas along with a cello sonata by Olli Mustonen, and Malinconia by Sibelius in 2014 which received a Grammy nomination. In 2017, his recording of Haydn's Cello Concertos was nominated for a Grammy Award.
Steven Isserlis is the author of two books for children on the lives of famous composers: Why Beethoven Threw the Stew, and Why Handel Waggled His Wig (Faber & Faber, 2001 and 2006 respectively). He has also written three stories that have been set to music by Oscar-winning composer Anne Dudley: Little Red Violin (and the Big, Bad Cello) in 2007, followed by Goldipegs and the Three Cellos, and Cindercella (published by Universal Edition, Vienna). He has also made several additions for Faber Music and sheetmusicnow.com. In September 2016, his book targeted towards young musicians Robert Schumann's Advice to Young Musicians Revisited by Steven Isserlis was published by Faber & Faber.He was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1998, and collected his award with his father, as his mother had died earlier that week. He was awarded the 2000 Robert Schumann Prize of the City of Zwickau.
-- Adapted from several sources.
-- Names which are links (both in this box and below) refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website. BD
[We then stopped for a moment, and I asked him to record at Station Break for us (“Hello, this is Steven Isserlis, and you are listening to Classical 97, WNIB in Chicago”). This was something which surprised him, and he noted that he had never done one before. We also briefly discussed the recordings which were currently available, and he seemed not to be pleased with them . . . . .]
© 1990 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in Chicago in May of 1990. Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1993, and again in 1998. This transcription was made in 2019, and posted on this website at that time. My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM.You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago. You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.