Steven Isserlis – Children’s Cello

Written by: Colin Anderson

Cellist Steven Isserlis is very busy and travelling much, sometimes changing cellos between flights – “I have a particularly complicated cello life”. He has though written a second book: “Why Handel Waggled his Wig” (Faber and Faber). “It took me two years. I read endlessly in hotel rooms, on flights, in cafes, and sat there taking notes. The Internet was pretty useful, but you get so much more out of books.” Steven’s entertaining and enlightening tome introduces the lives and music of Handel, Tchaikovsky, Schubert and others, a vivacious, quixotic style that tells stories and fires the imagination. “Music has transformed my life, so the least I can do is give some of that back.”

The range of composers Steven plays is exemplified by his summer dates: he completes recording Bach’s cello suites for Hyperion and gives the premiere of Wolfgang Rihm’s new concerto. “It’s dedicated to me, which is very nice. He came backstage once and said he was going to write me a concerto.” In May, Steven plays Schubert at the Wigmore Hall (4th and 11th) and the first of Shostakovich’s concertos at the Queen Elizabeth Hall (13th). Coded messages in the latter? “I don’t think they’re very coded! There’s excitement and beauty, all very tragic, and it’s completely wild at the end: the world may be going up in smoke but it’s great fun to watch it!”

Steven has a new CD out, on BIS, Children’s Cello, made with his good friend the pianist Stephen Hough (CD-1562). The idea for the recording “was hearing my son Gabriel practice. There are some very beautiful pieces, most of which I never played. Stephen, who is often round at our house, got involved playing with Gabriel (Gabriel’s very lucky!) and we just thought, why not?” The CD may be aimed at cellists of various grades, but Steven hopes “there’s something for everybody.” There is; it’s an enjoyable collection of lively and lovely pieces including ones composed by both performers, Steven’s being The Haunted House. “Simon Callow narrates it, a silly story. He and Stephen are my master interpreters; they must have studied my letters, my inner life!” Steven, a career-cellist from age 10, joined a musical family: “I’ve a got a violinist sister, a violist sister, my father plays the violin and my mother used to play the piano. A cellist was needed!”

In his May 4 Wigmore recital, Steven plays Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata, “a masterpiece. The arpeggione was a bowed guitar and the cello is the ideal instrument to replace it.” Also in this recital are Beethoven, Hummel and Rossini. “Schubert was the first chapter I wrote for the book; I read about his life, the composers he knew and who was then popular in Vienna.” Steven “loves hearing unusual pieces by great composers”, so the Wigmore Schubert concert on the 9th includes his Ländler for two violins, Joshua Bell playing one of them. And the programme on the 11th includes a Swedish folksong. From where? “Sweden!” Fair enough. From where in Schubert’s E flat Piano Trio? “The incredible slow movement.” Is there a learning element to these concerts? “Not much. Just enjoy them!”

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