Steven Isserlis interview

STEVEN ISSERLIS
by Christopher Morley


Steven Isserlis makes a welcome return to the CBSO early next month after more than a decade, playing the Schumann Cello Concerto flanked by very different pieces from two highly-contrasting Strausses.

The Waltz King Johann Strauss is represented by his fizzing overture to his operetta Die Fledermaus, while Richard Strauss (no relation) aggrandises his own life-story in the epic tone-poem Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life). Nikolaij Znaider swaps his violinist's bow for a conductor's baton for the concert.

Isserlis, who recently celebrated his 60th birthday, is a major presence on Twitter, his many "on this day" tweets an endearing and thoughtful homage to musicians whose anniversaries are being celebrated on any particular date on the calendar. How does he research these landmarks?

"It's very simple! " he replies to me during a recent flight to Budapest.

"I begin by looking up the music section of onthisday.com and, if I fail to find anything there that appeals to me, I go to brainyquote.com. Usually there's somebody about whom I have strong feelings who has an anniversary that day. If not, I tend to quote from PG Wodehouse, because he is such an inexhaustible treasure-trove. "

Incidentally, during the flight Steven sent this tweet ,paying tribute to British Airways.

"Thank you @British_Airways (I'm not being sarcastic!) I checked in this am and had to wait c 5 minutes (ie virtually no time)while the agent checked on the cello. Then he apologised profusely for the 'delay'! If he knew the tortures to which we cellists are so often subjected...". Credit where credt is due; airline check-in operatives are often so ignorant when it comes to musicians travelling with their cherished instruments.

Steven and I both share a devotion to Schumann, as both a composer and as a man. One of Steven's tweets in fact introduced me to Schumann's charming and wise slim volume "Advice to Young Musicians", to which Steven provided commentaries for today's youngsters. He finds it difficult to explain why he is so devoted to the composer.

"It's always hard to say why one loves a particular person in a special way! And with Schumann one is definitely loving the man along with the music, because the two are inseparable. And yes, his writing is wonderful, too; I wrote my commentary on his Advice in order to bring its poetry and wisdom to more young musicians of today. "

We hear the Elgar and Dvorak Cello Concertos so often, possibly to the neglect of other works such as the Schumann. Steven's comments are revealing.

"Well, I seem to be asked for the Schumann concerto more than for any other! But that's fine with me… It 's more intimate, less spectacular than the Elgar or Dvorak; but it has a quality of intimate confession that I think is unique in any concerto, for any instrument. It is a profoundly beautiful masterpiece; and if I were ever to get tired of it, it would be time for me to retire!"

Later this year Steven will be directing the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra for a performance by Radu Lupu of Mozart's Piano Concerto no.23 in A major, and Steven's own performances with the CBSO will be directed by a conductor who is himself a string-player. Thinking of the success of Sakari Oramo, who was once concertmaster of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, leading from the first violin desk, do instrumentalists have more of an insight into the workings of a symphony orchestra than conductors who have never had practical performing experience, I ask Steven?

"Well, yes," he replies. " I think that in the case of both Sakari and Nikolai, they do bring a special sympathy to the art of conducting concertos. That said, however, I don't think it's essential for a conductor to play a string instrument in order to be a fine collaborator.

"I first knew Sakari as a violinist, and of course knew of Nikolai as a violinist before he started conducting, although I don't think we met then. He and I played together recently in Montreal, and got on like a house in dire need of the fire brigade!"

Coinciding with Steven isserlis' appearances with the CBSO comes the release of a new Hyperion CD, on which he is accompanied by the equally thoughtful Finnish pianist Olli Mustonen in the searing Shostakovich Cello Sonata and the less familiar Cello Sonata by Kabalevsky, along with miniatures by both composers and Prokofiev. The insert-notes are certainly among the most thoughtful I've ever read, and their author is Isserlis himself.

It's my habit when interviewing people to end by asking them if there's anything else they'd like to tell me?

Steven's reply was typically quirky. "I hate liver".

*Steven Isserlis performs the Schumann Cello Concerto with the CBSO at Symphony Hall on February 6 (2.15pm) and 7 (7.30pm). Details on 0121-780 3333.
His CD of Sonatas by Shostakovich and Kabalevsky is released by Hyperion on CDA68239.

Christopher Morley

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