Steven Isserlis: Gut instinct

With his shaggy mop of curls and almost eruptive energy as a performer, cellist Steven Isserlis could be described rightfully as one of the ‘pop stars’ on the classical stage.

Some concert performers have it and others don’t. But when it comes to visual theatre, you’d have to say Steven Isserlis has a ton of it. His charismatic energy and head of flying curls make him a kind of Robert Plant or Brian May of the cello world. It makes him one of precious few classical musicians who seem to really thrive on that sense of moment when everything – planned or otherwise – seems up for grabs. Other cellists can seem to be contained within their own bubble, but Isserlis plays with an almost physical sense of connectedness to his surroundings. Spontaneity with other musicians on stage, vibes with the audience, and interplay with a hall’s acoustics: these are ingredients that can make his inspiration flow. “It sort of happens, or it doesn’t,” he explains laconically. “One never knows, but one hopes.” The surprise is to discover that underneath his flamboyant stage persona this modestly spoken Londoner is more given to singing other people’s praises than talking about himself. “Everybody’s different, but I was brought up very differently to other cellists,” he says. “I had a musical family and both my sisters are wonderful string players. Tchaikovsky’s pupil Sergei Taneyev, who taught Rachmaninoff, also taught my grandfather (Julius Isserlis); so a bit of that probably rubbed off onto me too.” Isserlis reserves greatest praise for his teacher, Jane Cowan, who taught him from age 10. She was “a great lady and something of an eccentric,” he says. “She taught in what you might describe as a natural, holistic way. Instead of just playing cello and trying to make the loudest possible sound, she had me play madrigals, study Goethe and read Racine in French. She taught me to listen to the music and to look into how and why composers wrote their music.” He says Cowan also opened his ears to the early music movement and the sound of gut strings. “She loved Couperin and Monteverdi, and she fervently believed in gut strings.” This was a radical thing in the 1970s, but now many players are swinging over to gut; and not all of them are from the early music movement. Richard Tognetti uses a gut A and E on his violin, for instance. Isserlis says he only uses steel when travelling to humid countries, due to its increased stability, and when playing Shostakovich – “Otherwise, the vast majority of what I do is with covered gut, because it keeps the sound alive”. One thing Isserlis fiercely opposes is listening to other people’s recordings for ideas. “The choice one has is whether to listen to records or read the music. It is the choice of listening to God or the local vicar,” he quips. At the same time, his friends are all musicians. He counts pianists Steven Hough, Jeremy Denk and Paavali Jumppanen among them. And Tognetti too, who at the time of writing is staying with him in London. New on the block is young Canadian pianist Connie Shih, who joins Isserlis on his forthcoming Musica Viva tour. He tells how he first heard Shih at a Vancouver festival and immediately wanted her to play with him. “She’s an amazing, natural and passionate musician. She makes me feel completely free. She is strong but always listening. I play with a lot of pianists who are more famous, but she’s a force.” Isserlis is a force himself of course. As a kid growing up in London, he admits that he was the class clown; and as a 50-plus year-old now, there’s still a feral but pure instinctiveness about his playing that speaks of boyhood passion. He agrees. “It comes back to my teacher,” he says. “Rather than let the music get in the way, she would say ‘The music comes through you’, which is like it is for children.” It is no coincidence that Isserlis is also a children’s author. His two books, Why Beethoven Threw the Stew and Why Handel Waggled his Wig, are both for junior readers. Plus he runs a series of children’s concerts in New York and has recorded the CD Children’s Cello with Stephen Hough. It’s about feeling liberated. To Isserlis the prism of childhood offers just that, and so too does new music. His June program will include a new work by UK composer Thomas Adès, his Lieux retrouvés (Remembered Places). Isserliss describes it as “accessible and very original, accessible not in the ‘please like me’, tonal-at-all-costs way, but in a very communicative way”. Outdoorsy in theme, it depicts cascading water, mountain climbing and the like, he says. “And I mean this not in a condescending way, but some of it is very beautiful.” Other works in the concert are by Saint-Saëns, Fauré and Franck. Admired as much as anything for his extreme virtuosity, Isserlis concedes he found the last movement of the new Adès work the hardest music he has yet tackled. “I couldn’t believe it when I first saw it. I thought it impossible to play,” he says. “At the first performance I panicked, but gradually I’ve got my fingers around it since then.” Steven Isserlis with Connie Shih Adelaide Town Hall Thursday, June 4

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