Café Concert: Steven Isserlis

Audio: Steven Isserlis Finds Religion in the Bach Cello Suites

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

VIDEOS: Steven Isserlis plays Tsintsadze and Kabalevsky

Steven Isserlis, the English cellist and a guest in the WQXR Café, said that he’d like to write a book about what it’s like to be a professional musician. He's not the first with that idea but one expects he’d have a lot to say.

Isserlis can wax lyrically about the joys of playing the Beethoven cello sonatas, the religiosity he finds in the cello music of Bach, and why a rarity like Kabalevsky's Second Cello Concerto is "a real winner of a piece."

A prolific writer whose output includes two children's books, Isserlis blogs on such diverse topics as Hitler's musical tastes and Victorian literature. A fan of the Beatles, he is an acquaintance of Paul McCartney and styles his hair not unlike the Fab Four once did. In conversation Isserlis is as witty and opinionated as his writing, as spirited and assured as his musical performance.

Isserlis is most animated when talking about Beethoven, a composer he resisted for the first half of his career. Five years ago, he dove in with a day-long Beethoven marathon at the Wigmore Hall. This week, he performs more Beethoven with fortepianist Robert Levin over four programs at the 92nd St. Y. Further Beethoven cycles are planned this year in San Francisco and Tokyo, as well as a recording with Levin.

"I had this resistance to Beethoven and I don’t know why,” Isserlis told Naomi Lewin. “It’s the most wonderful, life-enhancing music. You resist it and then you give into it. It just takes you over. It’s a very important part of my life now.”

Isserlis’s late-life conversion seems to mirror a similar decision to record the Bach cello suites in 2007 – some three decades into his career. The Bach album earned much critical acclaim. "It’s like some women never feel ready to have babies and then there comes a time,” he said. “I finally got up my courage to do it.” The decision came with some encouragement from his then-90-year-old father. "It was really what kicked me into the studio,” said Isserlis. “He came and sat in the studio when I recorded the Sixth Suite, which was his favorite.”

Isserlis was born into a musical family in London (his parents and two sisters are musicians). At 14, he moved to Scotland where he studied with Jane Cowan, a revered cello teacher who had students read Goethe's Faust because she thought it would help them play Beethoven better. In the mid 1970s he studied at Oberlin College Conservatory in Ohio. His big breakthrough came in 1989, when composer John Tavener wrote The Protecting Veil for him, which became one of the major cello works of the late 20th century.

Now 53, does Isserlis ever tire of the touring treadmill, with orchestras asking for the same limited bunch of concertos? "Audiences do come for famous pieces,” he acknowledges. But he quickly insists that he has struck a healthy balance.

“I can’t imagine ever getting tired of Elgar, Dvorak or Schumann, because they are masterpieces and I love them and they always say new things to me.”

Video: Amy Pearl; Sound: Jason Isaac; Production & text: Brian Wise; Interview: Naomi Lewin

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