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The Wonderful World of Steven Isserlis

Behind the Scenes with the Author, Advocate, Scholar, and Sleuth


Cellist Steven Isserlis is an original on stage and off. As a performer, he combines outgoing flamboyance with inwardness and introspection; as a musician, his probing intellect and brilliant, adventurous mind lead him to hunt up and research unknown, suppressed, and lost works with the tenacity of a detective, and to champion them with the zeal of a missionary. His strong ideas and fervently held convictions give his conversation a formidable rapid-fire impetuosity, but his intensity is tempered by his natural charm and infectious sense of humor. This makes talking with him riveting, enlightening, and delightful.

Next to music, his most consuming passion is books: He reads voraciously, and he has written a children’s book called Why Beethoven Threw the Stew, which tells stories about six composers: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, and Stravinsky. He also writes the liner notes for his recordings, which display both his scholarliness and his wit to fine advantage. He finds time for these literary activities on airplanes and in hotel rooms. When he came to my house for this interview, he seemed drawn to my bookcases; his eager interest in their contents immediately established a broad rapport.

When I met with Isserlis, he was fighting a severe cold, which, he explained, he had caught at Prussia Cove, a chamber music haven in Cornwall. "I was there last week. I go every April for three weeks to teach master classes and in September to play chamber music. It used to be a smugglers' cove, and is named after one whose nickname was King of Prussia. Lots of European chamber groups, especially from Britain, as well as some from America, have passed through there, and most of the teachers are also European. It's the most beautiful place in the world, right at the sea—terrible for the instruments, but gorgeous. It was started in 1972 by Sandor Végh, who gave a concert in Cornwall, fell in love with the place, and said, 'This is where I want to hold my seminar.' I sort of inherited it from him and have been running it as artistic director for about six years; it has a certain musical ideology. The idea of the chamber music part is that some of the April students get invited to play with the visiting older musicians in September. The place is so magical and inspiring that many of them come back every year. It's an important part of my life."

Isserlis was born in England in 1959, the youngest in a family of musicians. There is even a connection to Felix Mendelssohn "through a very distant cousin," Isserlis says. "But it's nice to have him in the family tree." His grandfather was the Russian pianist and composer Julius Isserlis, who was one of the first 12 Soviet musicians who were given permission to travel abroad for six months. "But of course none of them went back. He and his family went to Vienna in 1923 and then emigrated to England. My father tells a story of his childhood in Vienna: He and my grandfather went to one of the innumerable houses where Beethoven had lived, and in an apartment there they found someone who had actually met Beethoven: a 102-year-old Hausfrau, who said, 'Oh yes, I remember him well, a filthy old man, used to spit all over the floor.’" Isserlis' father is an amateur violinist, his mother was a pianist and piano teacher, and his two older sisters play period violin and viola, so, taking up an instrument still missing in his family, he became a cellist.

Steven Isserlis talks eagerly and knowledgeably about everything except himself and his career. His primary teacher was Jane Cowall, who had a reputation not only as a fine pedagogue, but as a bit of an eccentric. Isserlis explains: "That was her character. Music was a religion for her. She was so fanatical about it that she’d attack anybody whose opinions she thought differed from hers. She had studied cello with Feuermann and musicology with Donald Tovey, so that's very much my musical pedigree as well. I went to her when I was ten and stayed till I was 17, and often played for her after that. I think she was a great lady and a wonderful teacher, but perhaps not for everybody."

He wanted to study next with Piatigorsky in Los Angeles, but the famed cellist died that summer. "So instead I went to Oberlin and studied for two years with Richard Kapuczinsky, a lovely man," Isserlis explains. The Oberlin seed had been planted the previous year. "When I was 16," he says, "I took a competition in Bristol. I didn't win, thank goodness; if I had, it would have been a disaster. I should have been pushed into a career. . . . I hate competitions and never tried another, but that one had two good results. I met two people who are still among my best friends: David Waterman, cellist of the Endellion Quartet, and now the guardian of my son, and Steven Doane, who had been living with us for months (I often brought my friends home to stay) and who advised me to go to Oberlin, his alma mater.

He claims that after Oberlin he then went home and waited for the phone to ring. And did it? "Yes, about 11 years later. Oh, it rang before that, but only very occasionally. For a time I gave some concerts at English music clubs, and then I got to know a few musicians. That's always been the way my career has taken off, by word of mouth and through recommendations from other musicians. I was recommended to the Spoleto Festival, and there I met [violinist] Joshua Bell. Then I got to know the Finnish pianist Olli Mustonnen, who recommended me to his management, and that's how the phone gradually started ringing."

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