Steven Isserlis: Lost and Found Cello Concertos
Steven Isserlis on the most notoriously lost cello concertos, a restored treasure, and the future of the repertoire
Think of cellists who explore the byways of the repertory while championing established masterpieces and Steven Isserlis will probably come to mind. A 2002 Strings interview noted that “his probing intellect and brilliant, adventurous mind lead him to hunt down and research unknown, suppressed, and lost works with the tenacity of a detective, and to champion them with the zeal of a missionary.”
That hasn’t changed.
His most recent CD is reVision, a reflective tribute to his wife, Pauline, who died in June 2010. It is a collection of specially commissioned arrangements for cello and orchestra of music by Debussy, Ravel, Prokofiev, and Bloch. In the CD’s liner notes, Isserlis wrote, “The cello repertoire is not so huge that we can afford all the lost works . . . [that] burn the souls of cellists everywhere.”
Of those lost forever, which burns his soul the most?
“All cellists resent Clara Schumann having burnt Schumann’s last work, the Romances for Cello,” he says. “Haydn, luckily for us, knew [Joseph] Weigl and [Antonin] Kraft and had to write for them at Esterhazy, but a couple of his concertos appear to have been lost. Those are pretty big tragedies. A Mendelssohn concerto also appears to have been lost. It seems that Mozart started one. And Beethoven offered, apparently, to write one for [Bernhard] Romberg, who refused because he only played his own music. No comment! Beethoven could have written a wonderful cello concerto, I think. So could Brahms.
“And Schumann could have written another one, or a sonata.”
Other works are lost only temporarily, and resurface in new forms, sometimes prompted by Isserlis, 52, the tousle-haired musician widely hailed as Britain’s best-loved cellist. Last year, he introduced at a BBC Promenade Concert in London “Dark Pastoral,” David Matthews’s elaboration of part of a cello concerto sketched by Vaughan Williams in 1942. It was lauded by the Telegraph’s music critic Geoffrey Norris as “a pool of meditative rhapsody.”
The piece, Isserlis explains, was intended to be played by Pablo Casals, but that never happened. “It’s not a particularly Casals-y piece,” he says. “It’s sort of folksy-English. But I think it’s beautiful—the opening, especially.
“We don’t know what Vaughan Williams himself thought about the concerto, but his widow said it should never be completed. I think she was right. There’s a draft score of the first movement, a few minutes of the second movement, and virtually nothing of the last movement; so it would have been too big a leap of faith to complete all three. And two movements don’t really make a satisfying whole. But having looked at what there was of the slow movement [of the Williams concerto], I thought it was just too beautiful to waste, which is why I asked David to arrange it.”
Matthews adds that while the first movement could be realized, there’s doubt as to whether the draft is actually complete. And since he could make little sense of the maze of disconnected sketches that constitute the Finale, it was the central slow movement that was most promising. “There’s only the first four minutes,” he says, “but actually that was an asset, because after Ursula Vaughan Williams’ death the family trustees suggested that if I were to carry on from where [Williams] left off and compose the rest of the piece, this would evade her prohibition, since it would be largely my piece rather than [his]. I invented a tune in the middle that is very closely related to something he’d already started, and then at the end I brought back and extended the original opening.
“So the piece is in a sort of A-B-A form, which is presumably what VW would have done.”
The title, “Dark Pastoral,” selected by Matthews, reflects both the style of the piece and the color of its solo instrument.
Although acknowledged for his openness to new cello music (a CD project due late in 2012 is a recording of Beethoven’s works for cello and piano with Robert Levin), Isserlis restricts himself to one or two premieres per year in order to give them sufficient time and attention. His technique, he admits, is essentially a classical one. “I’m not very good at technical tricks, and I don’t particularly enjoy playing along the side of the bridge or hitting my cello. I was once doing the first performance of a concerto that included some weird brush-bowing or something, and I couldn’t do it at all. The conductor, who doesn’t play the cello, said, ‘But don’t you do it like this?’ He could do it, and I couldn’t!”
Last year, Isserlis—performing at Zankel Hall in New York in a piano trio that also included violinist Anthony Marwood and composer/pianist Thomas Adés—premiered Adés’ “Lieux retrouvés” for cello and piano. New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini reported: “The four movements evoke, though only elliptically, the waters, the mountains, the fields and, finally, the city. But the purely musical elements of the work are what grabbed me: the rippling figures for piano and cello that spin out in crazed, cyclic riffs; the crystalline piano harmonies that sound as if wind were rustling the chimes in a pagoda; the feisty, industrialized propulsive bursts in the finale. The audience responded with a prolonged ovation for this bold new piece.”
Isserlis joins the chorus of those singing Adés’ praises. “Thomas Adés is the most radical composer for cello who’s written for me recently,” he says. “In terms of difficulty, his ‘Lieux retrouvés’ for cello and piano is beyond anything I’ve done before. John Tavener’s ‘The Protecting Veil’ was pretty high, but Tom’s piece goes much higher than that. It’s great, though.
“He manages to draw on a range of influences and yet he has his own voice. That’s quite an achievement. And he understands that the cello is essentially a lyrical instrument. His piece drove me crazy—so did ‘The Protecting Veil,’ because I was playing up so high for so long, but when you get on top of it, it’s very satisfying.”
What other recent concertos does he admire? Of those composed for him, “The Protecting Veil” and Matthews’s “Concerto in Azzurro” (“a very fine piece, and very beautiful”) rank high on the list. Otherwise, Henri Dutilleux’s 1970 cello concerto “Tout un monde lointain” is probably his favorite “mainstream” concerto. “It’s gorgeous, a magical sort of French world,” he says. “Balance is always a problem in a cello concerto—in that respect, the Dvorak’s tricky, and so is the Britten Cello Symphony, although they’re both great works—but Dutilleux’s very clever about it.”
So is there still expressive or technical potential to be explored by composers writing for cellists? “I think some things have become clichés,” he says. “For example, if I hear a sort of groaning downward glissando it tends to put me off a piece. But yes, there’s always expressive potential. And there’ll be technical potential too, because you need technique in order to be expressive.
“I’m sure there are many masterpieces still to be written!”