Cellist  Steven  Isserlis

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


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 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

In May of 1990, Isserlis was in Chicago for performances of the Beethoven Triple Concerto with Joshua Bell and Jeffrey Kahane, and the Chicago Symphony led by Michael Morgan.  His time was very limited, but he graciously met with me for a conversation . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   You’re a cellist, so you have repertoire in solo, chamber, and orchestral music.  How do you divide your career amongst those three activities?

Steven Isserlis:   I don’t know!  It’s changing.  It used to be that that I did a lot of recitals and quite a bit of chamber music, and rather fewer concertos, but now it’s definitely turned round so that I’m doing now many more concertos and rather fewer recitals.

isserlis BD:   Is that something you like, or is it just happening upon you?

SI:   It’s all happening upon me, but it’s nice to redress the balance.  Eventually I’d like to settle down by doing equal amounts of concertos and recitals.  I always have a steady diet of chamber music, particularly during the summer which is chamber music for festival time.

BD:   Is it true that the cellists get lost in chamber music, or do you have to strive harder than the violinist to be prominent in a chamber ensemble?

SI:   It can be a problem.  The violin, being higher, usually has less of a problem in projecting.  The cello is something you’ve got to be aware of.

BD:   Do you compensate for that?

SI:   I guess, yes.  I hate thinking about projection, and I even hate the word.  I’d rather just think about the music.  But if I’m playing in a big hall, I try and look at the back row and think how I would feel if I were sitting there.  That sometimes makes me throw my musical voice.

BD:   Is this in your hands, or is it really in the instrument itself?

SI:   It’s a combination.   You can make a very soft sound that doesn’t project on a great instrument, and vice-versa.  It’s also the way people listen, and it’s the way other musicians react.  It’s a whole group of things, including the acoustic, and where you’re sitting in the audience.

BD:   Do you play any differently if you have a hall that has greater or lesser acoustics?

SI:   Probably, yes.  I prefer a rather dry acoustic.

BD:   Why?

SI:   I just find it easier.  My cello has its own resonance if it’s feeling healthy, and I find it easier to cut through that rather than a washy acoustic where everything is amplified.  Then I find it difficult to articulate.

BD:   You prefer to have a cleaner articulation...

SI:   ...yes, which actually carries better.

BD:   You say that your cello can feel healthy.  Does your cello really have moods?

SI:   My God, yes!  It’s partly me being neurotic, and it’s partly the cello reacting.  I have it set up differently when it’s in the States, if I can get to New York.  There’s a man there who knows how to make it sound good in America.

BD:   Does he move the sound post?

SI:   Yes, it
s partly the sound post.  Hes a Frenchman who lots of people go to, called René Morel.  Then, when I go back to England, if it changes again I have to take it down to Taunton, which is a two-and-a-half-hour train ride from Londonwhich is extremely annoyingbut hes the only man, who’s also an American, actually, who knows how to make it sound again.

BD:   What is the difference between the contexts that you want the cello to sound different?

SI:   I don’t want it to sound different.  I want it to sound the same, but it’s the different set-up that makes it sound the same in different contexts, because the humidity’s different, the temperature’s different, and the heating inside rooms is different.

BD:   We’re drier over here in America?

SI:   It tends to be, except that I’m about to go to Charleston, South Carolina, where it’s extremely wet
wetter than anything in Englandso, I don’t know.  It sounds different on different continents, and it sounds different in different towns.  It’s a nightmare, bringing me gray hairs and sorrow to the grave.  [Both laugh]

BD:   In the end, is it all worth it?

SI:   No!  [Smiles]  Well, I suppose so, yes.  The music’s worth it.  I could do without the peripheral problems, but if you have a concert which goes well, and you feel with the music, and you feel the audience is reacting with the music, I guess it raises you onto a higher level of being.

BD:   Then let me ask you a big philosophical question.  What is the purpose of music?

isserlis SI:   To make money!  [Both have a huge laugh]  As to the purpose of music, I could not tell you any more than I could tell you the meaning of life.  Each piece of music has a different purpose.  I play, perhaps not with equal pleasure but with pleasure, a work like the Rococo Variations of Tchaikovsky, which are charming and graceful, and meant to make people smile and enjoy the virtuosity as an expression of joy, and then one of perhaps the most exciting musical occasions I had recently, which was giving the first performance of a work by John Tavener.  He’s a British composer who converted to Russian Orthodoxy some years ago, and all his music is religious now.  He’s written a huge forty-two-minute work for cello and large string orchestra.

BD:   Did he write it for you?

SI:   Yes, and it’s a deeply religious work, and it really was a great experience to play it.  I had a very different purpose than the Rococo Variations, but I also love the Rococo Variations.

BD:   When he was writing it for you, did he come to you for opinions and suggestions?

SI:   No much.  Some composes do, some don’t, and he didn’t.  I gave a few suggestions after the work was written, but it’s a great work in which every note is entirely meant.  There wasn’t much for me to say.  I put one passage up an octave.  I prevailed upon him, he grumbled, but in the end he agreed, and I’m sure it was more successful that way.

BD:   For a bit more projection?

SI:   Yes, and even for the emotion he wanted.  It’s a very joyous passage, and it sounded little grumbly down there.

BD:   Is there any chance that this work will be recorded?  [CD cover is shown at right]

SI:   Yes, it’s my next big project!  I haven’t got the orchestra yet; we haven’t got the conductor; we haven’t set it up yet, but that’s definitely my next project to record.

BD:   Since we bring up the subject of recordings, do you play differently in the recording studio than you do in the concert hall?

SI:   Somewhat, because I don’t have to think about projection.  In that way, I can play in a more intimate fashion than I would in a large hall.  Apart from that, not really.

BD:   You don’t restrain yourself, though?

SI:   No, as I say, I hate the word ‘projection’, and I always resent having play louder than I feel the music demands... though I recognize that’s it’s necessary or people would not to be able to hear me.  But if it’s going well I can be very happy in a recording studio.  I do go for a natural balance.  For me, the ideal balance is not where the soloist is right in your living room and the orchestra in the neighbor’s house.  We’re equal musical voices, and require equal presence in a recording.  I play a phrase and then first flute of the orchestra echoes it, we have equal presence.

BD:   And that can be achieved on the recording?

SI:   That can be achieved, and it can be achieved in the hall, as well.  It’s perhaps easier, and that’s one of the advantages of recording.  I can do it without straining.  I can match a flute, or I can match twelve violins, or sixteen violins without any strain.  But, it’s not a huge difference, really.

BD:   If some concert manager came to you and wanted to amplify you just slightly in the hall to give you the right balance, would you object to that?

SI:   Yes!  That’s different.  Where I have to play louder than I want to, I have to be careful not to let it affect emotions I’m expressing.  The Beethoven Triple that we’re doing in Chicago now is a very extrovert work, but so are both the Haydn concertos.  They were written for softer instruments to be played in smaller halls, so there’s some compromise.  I have to be careful that I don’t bring an intensity that is not in the music because I’m trying, as I say, to throw my musical voice.

BD:   No Sturm und Drang in Haydn?

SI:   There is Sturm und Drang in Haydn, but within a scale that’s not the same as in Shostakovich.

*     *     *     *     *

isserlis BD:   You bring up the idea of music written for different instruments.  Do you ever play a different instrument, rather than the one you play regularly?

SI:   I played the Haydn C Major Concerto last December with the English Baroque Soloists, which is an original instrument orchestra.  I kept my cello, which is from 1740, which is perfect, because the Haydn concerto was written in 1765.  I used a classical bow, which meant learning how to play with it, and of course, I played it at a lower pitch.  I already use a pure gut A string, and so-called period bowings.  It was very interesting and it was very scary.  Then later I was with John Eliot Gardener and his orchestra, and the next month I played with Roger Norrington and his original instrument orchestra.  We did the Schumann Concerto, which again I used my bow there and a pure gut A string and a slightly lower pitch than I would normally use.  We also played it at Schumann’s metronome marks... or at least I think we did!  We didn’t have a metronome ticking in the concerts, but it was very interesting.  I haven’t heard the tape yet, but I think we got pretty close.  It’s true Schumann.  I care very much about that piece, and I’m always interested in looking at different editions and sources.  Both the cello version and the violin version he did later have the same metronome markings, not even in brackets.  People say Schumann’s metronome was not very competent, but I don’t think that’s true because the last movement is what I’ve always taken it at.  I don’t know if I would be so extreme in the future, but I learned something from that.

BD:   When you see a piece of music, and you’ve gotten all of the notes on the page, how slavish are you to play exactly what’s there, and how much do you interpret the music?

SI:   [Laughs]  You’re always interpreting the music.  With some composers, the markings on the page are more sacrosanct than others.  I find Tchaikovsky and Schubert both over-marked in general, but obviously it shows you what’s in their mind.  But I wouldn’t be as slavish about playing the second subject of the Schubert Quintet pianissimo as I would just to think of pianissimo.  It has to have that quality, but it also has to sing.  I’m also thinking of the Rococo Variations, where, in the theme there are huge crescendos to forte.  It is a very gracious, elegant theme, and if it
s played as one would play forte in Beethoven, or Twentieth Century French composers, it’s going to stretch the melody out of character.  I’m thinking of the Debussy Sonata, or the Ravel Trio, or something rare where I try to be as slavish as possible.  In Beethoven and Schumann as well, you’re trying to distinguish between sforzandos and forte-pianos, sforzando-pianos, and all that.

BD:   All the little details.

SI:   Exactly!  It’s all so carefully meant.

BD:   Do you feel that the audience picks up on all of these little subtleties that you put into the music?

SI:   The audience listens to the music.  They shouldn’t be aware that I thought that the piece of music has been written before yesterday.  Ideally, the piece of music should just happen at once, and they should hear it and experience it.  It’s up to me to do all my work beforehand.  I don’t want to make them suffer for it.

BD:   Do you suffer for your music?

SI:   Well... I wouldn’t say
suffer.  I work at it, but then I try to pretend I never work at it.  Thats the ideal.

BD:   Is there enough music written for cello?

SI:   Rostropovich has done a whole lot to help.  He’s commissioned a lot of music.  I was just talking about it last night with Henry Fogel [President of the Chicago Symphony].  I like a lot of the lesser-known Nineteenth Century cello music that’s not played now.  I just find it charming... things like Anton Rubenstein’s First Sonata, or Liszt’s cello music that is hardly ever played.  I’ve just made a record that’s coming out fairly soon of the Rococo Variations, but also of other works by Tchaikovsky, Glazunov, César Cui, and Rimsky-Korsakov, who are all Nineteenth Century Russian composers.  It just conjures up an era which I’m charmed by.  I love the literature as well.

BD:   You’re of Russian heritage.

SI:   I am!

BD:   Does that cause this music to speak a little more directly to your heart?

isserlis SI:   Possibly... although I also have a great predilection for French music.  That’s not in my blood, though in the Fourteenth Century my family was French.  I love the language, too.  [Jokingly]  I reckon that in my previous life I was a Nineteenth Century Russian dog because I love dogs, and I love Nineteenth Century Russia.  There is a connection for me, and when I made this record, I actually wrote the sleeve note myself because the era fascinates me.  I was rather pleased when I realized that the Glazunov pieces were written for Anatoliy Brandukov (1859-1930), who was a cellist my grandfather used to play with.  Even the Rachmaninov Sonata was also written for Brandukov.  After he played it with Rachmaninov, he played it with my grandfather, who was a pianist, and he also flirted with my grandmother [laughs] which created some tension!  But it’s so nice to feel this connection.  I was also pleased with the fact my family’s somehow connected to the Mendelssohn family.  I like that.  It doesn’t make me, by any means, a better interpreter of Mendelssohn’s music, or Glazunov’s music, but it’s just a nice feeling.  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Felicity Lott, and Christoph Eschenbach.]

BD:   I’m sure in the Twentieth First or Twenty Second century, some Ph.D. scholar will start digging, and will say, [using a very authoritarian tone]
Yours is the definitive interpretation, and this connection is absolute because of that twenty-third recessive gene on one side!

SI:   [Laughs]  Maybe, except there’s another thing.  My family’s also related to Karl Marx, and I don’t think anybody could call me the perfect communist!  [Much laughter]  But, that may happen, you never know.

BD:   Is music at all political?

SI:   No!  Politics is meant to be about people.  Music can certainly have an effect on people, which could have political consequences, like The Marriage of Figaro.  But music in itself is not political.  Musicians can be.

BD:   But in Figaro, it’s really more of the text of Beaumarchais than the notes of Mozart.

SI:   Exactly.  It tells a story.  Obviously, every piece of music tells a story, but being political is too limited.

BD:   Even abstract music tells a story?

SI:   Oh, yes, I think so.  Often when I teach
which I do rather rarely, but I do from time to timewhat I like to do is try to get people to think of the subjects as the characters of the story, and how they interrelate, and how the themes develop.  It’s like literature for me.

BD:   So then you, as a performer, are the narrator?

SI:   I suppose so, yes.  It can’t be taken too far, but every great piece of music goes on a journey and arrives somewhere, like a story.

BD:   Should we arrange Winterreise for cello?

SI:   [Laughs]  Well, there you need the words.  It’s not exactly abstract when there are words.

BD:   You mentioned teaching.  What advice do you give often to students in lessons or in masterclasses?

SI:   I try to give quite a lot.  Analysis is very important to me, but not cold, dry analysis.  I find most music students have done analysis courses, and yet they’ve never connected it up with the music they play.  For me, analyzing a piece is understanding a piece
not by calling it 1A, 2A, 3A, but knowing what the subjects are, what they express, and how they develop, how they inter-relate.  That is the piece.

BD:   So using the analysis is the beginning rather than the end?

SI:   Both, yes.  The pieces are like a novel.  You can’t read a novel without knowing who the characters are, and what they’re like as characters, and it
s the same in music.  In Brahms sonatas, the music is clearly laid out.  When I teach them, I ask about the three principle subjects in the movement, and hardly anybody ever knows, which strikes me as a problem in education.  I was taught always that way myself.  I was lucky, and yes, obviously, I’m saying that instinct is the most important thing.  But to understand a piece of music, you have to know it.

isserlis BD:   What advice do you have for someone who wants to write a concerto for you?

SI:   I don’t really.  When I’m just about to give the first performance of a new one, its because the composers want to express such different things.  Obviously, I’ll tell them if it’s unplayable, or if I think it won’t work on the instrument.  But basically, it’s like saying what advice you give to a child who wants to grow up.  Let them develop their ideas.

BD:   Should someone who is writing for the cello at least know how to play it rudimentarily?

SI:   They should know what’s possible and what isn’t, but you don’t have to play it.  John Tavener doesn’t.  That point is, in fact, one of the things that’s great about his piece
that he didn’t know, really, and therefore he stretches the cello.  Its a fascinating new work without being at all gimmicky.  It was written totally for musical reasons.

BD:   He had his ideas, and then it’s up to you to get them to sound?

SI:   Yes.  The cello is meant to represent the Mother of God of his piece.  It
s the first time I’ve ever been told to do that!

*     *     *     *     *

Do you like being a wondering minstrel?

SI:   Not at the moment, particularly.  I often do, but since we had a baby
who was four weeks old yesterdayit’s not the time I most wanted to travel.  But I was just committed to it, and I wasn’t going to cancel.  I had to cancel things for two months, but it was time to be playing my cello again.  But normally I like traveling, as a rule.

BD:   Is your wife supportive of your career?

SI:   Oh yes!  She’s very supportive, and a wife, and a mother.  She’s everything.

BD:   She’s everything to you... [with a gentle nudge] more than your cello?

SI:   [Laughs]  Well, the two don’t conflict, which is the thing.  My cello is my route to music, whereas my wife is just herself.

BD:   When you’re going around the world, do you specifically try out other cellos that are in these specific cities?

SI:   No, it’s like kissing somebody else’s wife or girlfriend.  I really don’t like it when other people play mine.  It’s such a personal thing, and I’m not in a position to buy a cello any more expensive than the one I already have, which, for what it’s worth, is a little miracle.  I’m very lucky.

BD:   What if you had the opportunity to play on one owned by Paganini, or something like that?

SI:   I might try it if I were pressed into it, but I’m not that interested.  It’s just going to frustrate me if I love it, and I’d be embarrassed if I didn’t love it.

isserlis BD:   What is it that makes a great cello?

SI:   Sound and response, I would say.  I know a very famous Strad that I have tried.  It may have an amazing sound, but it’s impossible to play.  I would not want to have that cello.  It would drive me crazy.  It is a great cello, obviously, but it’s not a player’s cello, at least not the way it’s set up.  I’ve never enjoyed playing it.

BD:   So, it’s a museum piece?

SI:   I guess.  Maybe it could be set up, or maybe somebody will love it the way it is.  I didn’t when I tried it a couple of times, because it’s being played by a friend of mine.  There are so many things.  It has to suit you like a wife.  It’s chemistry.

BD:   How many cellos did you try before you settled on this one?

SI:   A few, six or seven, I suppose.  This was the one that spoke to me and said,
“Take me home!

BD:   And so you did!

SI:   Well, eventually.

BD:   What is it that makes a great cellist?

SI:   Ah!  I don’t know.  Hmmm... now you have me stumped!  I wouldn’t know.  It’s out of my field, isn’t it?

BD:   Are you striving to be a great cellist?

SI:   I suppose so.  I’m a musician who plays the cello.  I enjoy cello music per se, but I think I could be almost equally happy as a pianist.  I would love to play the late Beethoven sonatas, or the Mozart Concertos, but the cello’s my favorite instrument for sound, and I love the repertoire, even though it’s not huge.

[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 . . . . .]

BD:   [Genuinely surprised]  Are you not pleased with all your records???

SI:   I’m not pleased with anything I do.

BD:   If you’re not pleased with anything you do, how can the public be pleased with anything you do?

SI:   Oh, of course, they can!  If I rest on my laurels I might think it’s great, so why should I do it again?  There’s always something...  Having said that, there are records I give to people, and I’m actually quite happy they can listen to them.  Then there are other records I don’t give.  There are some where I think the sound is all right, but others the sound is just not good enough.  It’s just real problems with venues and engineers.  It’s my playing, and they’re done quite well, but I wouldn’t give them to somebody if I wanted to give a visiting card.  The Elgar and this Tchaikovsky will be coming out, and I like the Kabalevsky piece.  It’s a groovy little number.  Then I will be doing the Tavener...

BD:   We will look forward to that. 
Thank you for speaking to me on this very busy day.

SI:   It’s a pleasure.


© 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.