by Tim Janof

Photo by Jane Sebirae
Steven Isserlis is a remarkable cellist whose commitment to and obvious pleasure in music making is an inspiration to audiences and fellow-musicians. His artistic profile is characterised by a uniquely beautiful sound, a diverse choice of repertoire, a passion for finding neglected works and, above all, empathy with the music he plays.

Steeped in music from birth - his grandfather was the Russian pianist and composer Julius Isserlis, while older branches of his family tree have a direct line to Felix Mendelssohn -- Steven Isserlis has communicated through music from an early age. As Artistic Director of IMS Prussia Cove in Cornwall -- a role he inherited from founder Sandor Vegh -- this energy and passion for communicating and educating is evident in the annual master classes and chamber music sessions that he leads each April and September. In 2000 Steven commissioned 'Unbeaten Tracks', a collection of eight contemporary miniatures for the cello aimed at children and amateur cellists and, the following year wrote Why Beethoven Threw the Stew, biographical stories of six composers aimed at a young audience.

Steven's consuming interest in music extends through performance and teaching to a fascination with musicological research. Performances of rarely heard works pepper his schedule and he frequently brings his knowledge of the repertoire to bear in devising festivals and concert series for which he gathers around him musical friends such as Joshua Bell, Pamela Frank, Stephen Hough, Olli Mustonen and Tabea Zimmermann, as well as actors Barry Humphries and Simon Callow. Notable examples include his Schumann Festival at the Wigmore Hall (1989), a Mendelssohn and Brahms project at the Salzburg Festival (1997 and 2000) and a concert series entitled "Sleeping Beauties" (2000) with the London Philharmonic Orchestra that contrasted neglected pieces by major composers with their more famous counterparts. More recently Steven has organised showcases of chamber music by Carl Frühling in London, Berlin and Vienna and championed the music of the Russian composer Taneyev. He is currently devising a festival centred around Saint-Saëns which will be presented in London in spring 2004.

Steven's busy concert schedule includes engagements with the major UK, European, American and Asian orchestras. As a soloist he is invited all over the world and has recently been heard with the Berlin Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra, Philharmonia Orchestra, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Deutsche Symphonie Orchester Berlin, Czech Philharmonic, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony and the Australian Chamber Orchestra. His interest in period ensembles is reflected in appearances with the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, La Stagione Frankfurt, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Academy of Ancient Music. Steven collaborates with a wide range of conductors including Vladimir Ashkenazy, Sir Colin Davis, Christopher Eschenbach, Paavo Järvi, Roger Norrington, Leonard Slatkin, Mstislav Rostropovich and Sakari Oramo, with whom he recently made his debut with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

Isserlis brings his musicological enthusiasm into the recording studio with CD's such as 'Forgotten Romance, Cello World', a disc of trios by Brahms, Schumann and Frühling and a recording of Saint-Sa&@235;ns' Cello Concerto No. 2. Other recordings for RCA Red Seal cover a broad repertoire and include a disc of works by Richard Strauss recorded with Stephen Hough and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Lorin Maazel. Steven's recordings of Tavener's 'The Protecting Veil' (which won a Gramophone Award) and 'Svyati' were separately nominated for the Mercury Music Prize; his recording of the Haydn Concerti won a Classic CD Award and, in common with 'Cello World' and 'Forgotten Romance',' was nominated for Gramophone Award. The Schumann Cello Concerto with Christopher Eschenbach and Steven's CD of works by Janacek, Prokofiev and Shostakovich with Olli Mustonen were awarded the Deutsche Schallplattenpreis.

In 1998 Steven's passion for all things musical was recognised by a CBE in the Birthday Honours list. He is an honorary member of the Royal Academy of Music, and in 1993 received both the Piatigorsky Award in the US and the Royal Philharmonic Society Award. Steven was awarded the Schumann Prize of the City of Zwickau (Schumann's birthplace) in 2000; a 'Classic FM Red f Award' (2001) for his contribution to making classical music more popular; and, most recently the 2002 Time Out Classical Music Award.

Extra-musical enthusiasms include the novels of Wilkie Collins and R C Hutchinson, the films of the Marx Brothers and Indian food!

The Nippon Music Foundation of Japan has kindly loaned the Feuermann Stradivarius of 1730 to Steven Isserlis.

TJ: When playing a technically difficult piece like the Schumann Concerto, what thoughts occur to you while you are playing, technique-wise?

SI: I try not to let any technical thoughts occur to me. I find that this makes technical issues much easier. Occasionally I might look down when playing a big shift, but technique is not my focus. I'm thinking much more in terms of harmonies and what the music is doing - or rather, about the story that the music is telling. If one thinks about hitting a note, then the note is essentially missed whether one hits it or not because the meaning of the phrase will suffer.

Example 1 -- Schumann Concerto -- First Movement, m. 68

When hitting the high F in measure 460 in the last movement (see Example 1), you don't have a brief moment of detachment where you think something like, "First finger on D, third finger on F"?

Ideally, no. I certainly look down to make sure my finger is vaguely in the right place, but missing a note is not nearly as much of a disaster as losing the atmosphere or shape of a phrase.

How do you conceive of the fingerboard? Do you think of it in terms of blocks of notes, in terms of reference points such as harmonics, or do you practice shifts repeatedly until you get a "feel" for the shift?

Oh help ... I really don't know. I definitely don't think in terms of the first approach, at least not consciously; I use reference points for the left hand, of course. But hitting notes isn't just a left-hand issue.

Hitting notes isn't just a left-hand issue, by the way. Whether one hits a note is greatly influenced by the bow, and how confident one's approach to the bow is. The bow stops as the left arm goes up -- presuming that one doesn't want to hear the shift (with a glissando it's different, of course) -- and then the bow starts moving as soon as the note is hit. Big shifts are just as much a right hand issue as they are a left hand one.

How do you hit notes out of the blue, like in Example 1 above?

The trick is to not think about it. If you worry about hitting notes, odds are you will miss a lot of them. So much of technique is about confidence. I like to think that I can miss notes with ease!

Do you think more about technique in your practice sessions?

I do a lot of slow playing for intonation work, but I don't do a lot of technical analysis because it can do more harm than good. As I said before, too much thought about technique separated from music will result in one feeling inhibited and tense. Relaxation and confidence go together. And technique is the ability to express the meaning of the music.

When you are in your practice sessions, do you experiment with different tempos, or do you just go with your intuition while playing?

I don't consciously decide to play different ways, though as I find out more about a piece, I'm sure that I do play it differently. The more I find out about how themes relate to each other, how they contrast and what they have in common, the more ideas occur to me. And the more I look at the score, the more spontaneous I feel I can be. I realize this may sound paradoxical, but it's absolutely true. If you're stuck in some cliché you've heard somebody else do, there's no freedom at all. But if you study the score of some great piece of music, it will always tell you new things.

Do you believe that the necessary technique will emerge if you feel the music strongly enough, i.e. if you can feel it, you can do it?

Not necessarily. If that were true, there would be many more great players around. There are lots of people who feel very strongly about music, and yet are frustrated because their fingers are not trained to do what they want them to do -- and because they themselves haven't been taught to look INSIDE the work, to understand it fully.

Do you shy away from pure technical display?

It depends on what a composer wants. I've been playing some Rossini variations that are very virtuosic, but they are also very funny. I'm not particularly interested in virtuoso pieces unless they're charming or funny, but in this case, the piece is so elegant and witty that I enjoy playing it.

I also enjoy Popper's wit and warm-heartedness, even though I don't play his music much.

Do you consciously try to play with minimal tension?

Yes, this is important. I was taught to play in a very relaxed fashion by my teacher, Jane Cowan, who provided a great foundation for my playing. This doesn't mean I don't get tense, because I do, but my tension is usually the result of worries about memory lapses, not technical matters. I'm talking, of course, about tension unrelated to the content of the music. A lot of music demands great physical effort -- Shostakovich's 1st concerto, for instance -- but that's something else.

Do you find that you're able to be more creative musically when you play with less tension?

Definitely. Negative tension is a big enemy of music-making. You must be able to listen, and you can't listen if you're tense. On the other hand, if I never got nervous, I know that that would be dangerous, because it would mean I'd stopped caring about each performance -- still, there's no danger of that. Sometimes I get terrified! More than I used to twenty years ago, I think, well, certainly no less.

What is your warm up routine?

I usually warm up for about ten minutes at the beginning of each session as sort of a cellistic "teeth-cleaning." I play a d minor scale three times, and then do some exercises Jane Cowan gave me many years ago. There's a Hungarian tune I use for practicing bow distribution. I use another exercise to relax the body as I play across all four strings. Another one is an octave shifting exercise that was devised by Wilkomirski. I then run through all the scales and do a scale in thirds, and finish up with a little bit of upbow and downbow staccato. All this takes about ten minutes.

When you practice, do you work on carefully sculpting a phrase so that it leads towards and away from musical peaks?

I do most of my analysis while at the piano, not with a cello in hand. I spend a lot of time getting to know the harmonic and melodic structure of a work, and familiarizing myself with the score, and a piece's overall shape. I don't decide to shape a phrase a certain way before I play because I would be imposing my will on the piece. My goal is to have the technique to be able to listen to what the music is saying and let it lead me.

How would you describe the relationship between interpretation and textual fidelity?

I don't think there's a difference. Why would you want to interpret something other than the text? The text is a series of messages -- as Olli Mustonen puts it -- from one good musician to another. Each composer has his or her own language, so you have to approach a piece with this in mind. Some mean exactly what they say and others are just giving us general guidelines. Sorting this out is part of interpretation.

Part of one's interpretation of the Bach Suites is deciding whether Anna Magdalena made a mistake, or where Kellner might be more accurate, his being the earlier copy. What did Anna Magdalena mean when she put a pattern of slurs in? Does she mean for this pattern to continue? Was she being careless when she put a slur far to the left or right, or did she do this intentionally? One has to think about these things because it wouldn't make sense to play exactly what was written if there are mistakes in the text. You have to use your intelligence, and not follow the text blindly. On the other hand, one should never ignore the composer's messages. And if there's more than one source for a work -- different manuscripts in the composer's own hand, for example -- one should try to look at them all, if it's possible.

Some composers indicate specific metronome marks. Whose do you believe?

Some composers are more accurate than others. Debussy's and Poulenc's are very good. Debussy was meticulous in his description about how to play practically every note in his cello sonata, so it makes sense to follow his tempo markings as closely as possible. I don't believe Fauré's at all; there's a letter from Fauré to a friend where he says, "I got the metronome mark right for once." The tempo indication for the last movement of his first cello sonata, for instance, is a disaster, I think; but there's nothing in the manuscript, so maybe someone at the publisher's put it in. I hope so! I don't take Dvorak's markings in his cello concerto literally, but I take the relationships between the different tempi very seriously. There is always a message behind Schumann's tempo indications, but I wouldn't take them as gospel. You have to discover the language in which each composer is writing and what they are trying to tell you with their metronome marks. Some are very explicit, and others are saying, "For God's sake, not too slow!" -- or 'not too fast,' or whatever.

Schumann's markings in the cello concerto are very fast.

Yes they are -- except for the last movement -- and he wanted the tempo of the first movement even faster, but the cellist he worked with convinced him to cut them down. On the other hand, he writes a tempo for the last movement of his violin concerto that I find ridiculously slow.

I don't take his markings too literally. I believe that what he's trying to tell us in the beginning of his cello concerto, for example, is that, even though it says "Nicht zu schnell," it's not a slow movement. His tempo markings are sometimes quite impractical, but there is a message behind his choices that one must respect. One should also keep in mind that Clara was behind some of the indications in the complete edition; she would come up with metronome markings by timing how long it took her to play pieces and then dividing the total duration by the number of bars. That's not too accurate a method. But this doesn't apply to the cello concerto -- those markings are Schumann's.

Example 2-- Elgar Concerto -- First Movement, m. 1

What are some pieces in which you think tempo relationships are distorted by performers?

There are plenty of those. A number of clichés have sprung up around the Elgar Concerto, for instance. These clichés often have very little to do with what was actually written. For example, it is very rare that one can tell the difference between half notes in the first bar and eighth notes in the second bar (see Example 2). Their ratio is usually 2-to-1 instead of 4-to-1. Yes, the orchestral score says "largamente," but this means the rhythm should be broad, not that eighth notes aren't still eighth notes. Interestingly, Elgar doesn't say "largamente" in the piano score, which in general I prefer to the orchestral score.

Example 3 - Elgar Concerto -- First Movement, m. 6

Also, when Elgar goes into sixteenth notes and then eighths in the second phrase for the cello, it is very rare to hear the difference between the note values (see Example 3).

Example 4 - Dvorak Concerto -- First Movement, Number 5

I have similar objections to how the Dvorak Concerto is often played. Dvorak is very specific about when he wants to change the tempo and when he doesn't. For instance, at Number 5 (see Example 4), cellists often slow down when there is no indication to do so.

What do you think of the Rose/International edition of the Dvorak Concerto?

The Rose edition -- hmph! Somebody used that edition when they played for me in Korea recently. I told them to go and burn it. Rose altered Dvorak's dynamics and you cannot do that! I know there are different dynamics from different sources, but he goes beyond any of the sources. We now have good editions, so people should buy them instead.

Example 5 - Dvorak Concerto -- First Movement, 12 before 7

Do you think cellists take too much freedom in the opening of the Dvorak?

It does say "quasi improvisando," so some freedom is expected. Having said this, I think the Dvorak's inner rhythms and their simplicity are very, very important. This piece must be never sentimentalized. There are places like in 12 before 7 in the first movement (see Example 5). There's no change of tempo there; it mustn't get too slow. The cliché seems to be to slow down massively and then charge off four bars later. I feel that the structure of the music falls apart when this is done -- and if that happens, the concerto seems to take for ever!

Example 6- Dvorak Concerto -- Last Movement, m. XX

Another example is in the last movement, at 26 after Number 7 (see Example 6). In the return of the theme in the last movement, cellists often play it around half the tempo. I can't stand it when people do that because then the orchestra sounds so silly when they then enter a tempo. This is absolutely not what is marked. It is marked "in tempo," and he actually takes the trouble to repeat the opening metronome mark in the autograph. I think he wanted it in tempo!

Example 7- Dvorak Concerto -- Last Movement, Coda

Another is in the beginning of the Coda in the last movement (see Example 7). I've had trouble with conductors when I've played it pretty much at the same tempo at the beginning of the coda instead of slowing down immediately -- but that's what it says! It mustn't be unnaturally fast, of course -- the elegiac tone enters immediately -- but it's got to leave room for the slow wind-down of the work, the farewell to his beloved sister-in-law. Dvorak indicates that the coda starts at the same tempo and gradually, step by step, slows down. If you go too slowly immediately, you've ruined the shape and meaning of the coda, the sense of journeying back through the whole work at the end.

Eva Heinitz used say that Schubert should be played with a tear in one eye and a smile in the other. Does this sound right to you?

Yes, I like that. One so often senses his smiling through tears or crying through smiles, I'm never quite sure which it is! That idea works very well for the Arpeggione Sonata. Incidentally, Schubert, along with Handel, Beethoven, Fauré, and so on -- actually, most of the great composers -- was very intent on maintaining a consistent tempo in his pieces.

This "smiling through tears" idea becomes less pervasive in his final works. Some of his later music isn't smiling anymore, actually, like the middle section of the late A Major Piano Sonata, which is simply terrifying.

As an aside, I read in the Otto Erich Deutsch's books on Schubert that Schubert thought Mozart was difficult to play. This is according to an account written by one of Schubert's schoolfriends. I'm glad that even he felt that.

Claudio Arrau once said, "A real interpreter is somebody who's able to transform himself into something he is not, otherwise that's like an actor who plays himself." Do you attempt to inhabit different characters, depending on what you're playing?

I'm not sure I quite agree with him -- almost, but not quite. When an actor plays a role, he or she plays that role, while still retaining his or her basic identity. We do something similar as musicians. We are trying to convey the composer's message, but it's we who are presenting it -- the song is sung, the story told, in our voice, as it were. And that's the way it should be -- has to be!

Do you put on your "happy pants" when playing Haydn, for instance?

No, I think I can honestly say that I don't have a pair of pants that could be described like that! Hmm.... I suppose that I'd describe his cello concertos as essentially charming and witty music, although of course there are deeper moments as well. To continue the clothing analogy, I'd say that in musical terms I put on fine clothes, because music of that pre-Beethoven era was on the surface supposed to please and delight the ear, and it should be played accordingly. Classical music expresses emotions every bit as profound and varied as romantic music; they are just expressed in an elegant language -- without swearing, as it were.

What do you think of Jacqueline du Pré's recording of the Haydn C? It's not always refined and elegant.

I don't believe I've ever heard it. I don't listen to cello records, the danger being that I start to imitate them. Of course, she was very much my heroine when I was growing up, and I played for her a couple of times.

What kinds of things did she say to you?

She was very nice and helpful. The first time I played for her, I played the Brahms E minor Sonata, all of which she wanted it all to be heavier and more weighty -- not really the way I conceived, or conceive, of that sonata -- but it was very convincing when she talked about it. During my second visit, I played a Khachaturian solo sonata and she spent over two hours with me. She always wanted more, more, more ... more emotion, more gesture, more sound, more of everything. It was very helpful, because that was just what that piece needed. She was fantastic!

Did she discuss projection with you, like playing for the last row in the hall, etc?

I don't remember if she used that cliché. I don't think so -- I doubt it. Her comments were more specific to the piece. Afterwards she played records for me and a friend I had taken along. We left with a feeling of total elation.

Do you dwell upon the details of individual notes as a general rule? Starker considers what happens before, during, and after a note.

I don't really think like that -- perhaps I should! I do a basic harmonic analysis, which is taking the larger view of a work. I experience a lot of music like a story, where different themes or motives are different characters. It's like when you're reading a book. You need to know who the main characters are so that you can understand the story. The same idea applies to music.

Do you believe that having some background in music theory is important?

It's essential. Not in a dry academic sense -- but you have at least to understand the basic tonal journey of a piece, or you really haven't understood what the piece is 'about.' I could use here the simile of a portrait painter, who has to understand the structure of his subject, in order to convey the subject's character -- as the artist sees it -- in the painting. On the other hand, I do think that there can be a danger that too much theoretical thinking can turn the musician into a doctor, who analyzes the patient's internal workings so thoroughly that, in the end, he can't see the beauty at all!

Do you improvise at all during performances, or are things pretty much worked out ahead of time?

My performances always have an element of improvisation. I can't imagine doing it any other way.

Starker's opinion is that there's no such thing as true improvisation. A musician merely chooses from a menu of pre-determined options.

I think that is more of a semantic disagreement, probably. If you're telling the same story to a different audience of children, say, night after night, it would come out differently each time. Different things would be emphasized since different things would strike you as the story progresses. And all these new insights are revealed even though the text is the same each time. Maybe this isn't quite improvising, but the story should feel new each time.

Alban Gerhardt mentioned that his former teacher, the late Boris Pergamenschikov, wanted everything to be carefully worked out ahead of time.

I've seen Boris be very spontaneous. His Lutoslawski at the Manchester Festival six years ago was fabulous. He was clearly enjoying himself and improvising. It was one of the great performances I've heard. He was a wonderful artist and a wonderful man -- and the best colleague one could ever hope to meet. His early death is a tragedy.

Jacqueline du Pré said, "When a composer writes a piece it's his, when I play it, it's mine." Do you agree with this approach?

Again, it's semantics, I'd suspect. Ideally, there shouldn't be a conflict -- a musician should identify totally with the music that he or she is playing.

Let's say you're in the middle of a performance and an impulse comes to you that makes you want to do something that contradicts the score, like playing a forte instead of a piano, or a legato instead of a dot. Do you allow yourself to follow a whim?

I think one has to follow the music in what it's telling you at the moment of performance -- but of course what it's telling you is based entirely around what the composer has written. If a composer puts in a certain indication, it is going to make sense; it's up to us to understand it -- and also to find out EXACTLY what the composer has really written. For instance, I've been playing the Chopin Sonata quite a bit recently. I looked at the sketches of the fair copies of the manuscripts and found that in the Trio section of the Scherzo he marked it lento, which is very interesting. I've always played it at exactly the same tempo throughout the movement, but I've started relaxing it in the Trio section since this discovery, and it's made sense. I wonder if this is something that was inadvertently left out by the publisher, or if Chopin thought that this would overstate the idea and took out the marking. Obviously, he didn't conceive of the movement with the same tempo throughout.

Example 8 -- Beethoven D Major Sonata -- Slow Movement, m. 71

I get very excited when I discover things like this, which is why I'm thrilled by a recently-released edition of the Beethoven Sonatas, edited by Jonathan Del Mar. It's amazing how many mistakes there are in the Henle. Del Mar's edition is going to be very different. In addition to lots of differences in articulation and dynamics, there are some different notes. For instance, in the slow movement of the D Major Sonata (see Example 8), Jonathan found a wrong note -- and I realized with hindsight that the second D in that measure had always bothered me; it sounds sentimental. Jonathan looked closely at the manuscript, and saw that it was really an F. This edition is going to have quite an effect on the way people play the sonatas; it's going to be great!

How much showmanship do you think is appropriate in a performance?

There's a fine line between genuine emotional involvement in the music and "milking the crowd." If one is totally involved in the music, I see no reason to make any special effort to hide it. And there are some pieces where a certain degree of acting is appropriate, the ones in which the musician is playing a dramatic role. One would expect the cellist in Don Quixote to be more demonstrative than in more abstract music like the Bach Suites.

Starker says that he's not an actor, he's a musician, and he tries to stay out of the way of the music.

Semantics yet again! I believe that we musicians should transmit the music through ourselves -- each in his or her special way.

Arrau said, "The better you play Beethoven, the closer you come to the essential meaning, then the better you'll play pieces by Tchaikovsky." Is this your experience?

I agree, and I like the way that this comment links Tchaikovsky to the classical era. I think people play Tchaikovsky in a way that would have horrified him. We mustn't ever forget that Mozart was Tchaikovsky's hero; Tchaikovsky's music so often has a wonderful elegance that is directly related to Mozart -- even within a work as overtly tragic as the Pathetique symphony. I'm sure that Tchaikovsky wouldn't have wanted his music to be played in a self-indulgent way.

Example 9 - Dvorak Concerto -- First Movement, Number 10

How would you say your playing has changed over the years?

I don't consciously change how I play, though my playing has undoubtedly evolved. For instance, I think I feel more in something like the a-flat minor section in the first movement of the Dvorak (see Example 9). I find I'm playing with more obvious emotion than I was before. I don't know why that is. Perhaps I'm getting older and sadder, but not much wiser. I don't choose to play it this way, it just happens.

What do you think of statement made by Janos Starker, "The only true measure of success as a musician is whether he or she is recognizable"?

If what he means is that you have to find your own voice, then I think he's right. It takes time to find one's own voice. It's a long journey.

What is Steven Isserlis's voice?

Well, I'm sure you've heard it quite enough during the course of this interview -- you're probably sick of it by now! I know I am. Musically speaking, I hope it changes for every piece. There are Hollywood actors who are always the same no matter their character and then there are actors who change for every role. I'd much rather be the latter, though, as I said before, we can't help but be ourselves -- we MUST be ourselves! But we have to find our true selves through the scores we play. Versatility is the key. The more different worlds we can enter, the more exciting and fresh music will remain for us -- and for the people to whom we're playing!


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