An Interview with Steven Isserlis

By · Photography © Christian Menkel · Date 06/08/2017

At the Mozartfest in Augsburg this year, the cellist Steven Isserlis performed during the final concert in Richard Strauss’s tone poem “Don Quixote.” Isserlis’s photograph was plastered all over the festival’s materials, but he insisted that the work was not a kind of concerto for him to star in. Before the performance, I interviewed him in public as part of the festival’s activities. (Full disclosure: I was paid by the Mozartfest to do the public interview. The decision to reprint the conversation in VAN was made independently of my work there.) The following is an edited and condensed version of our talk.

VAN: When you’re preparing a piece like “Don Quixote” that has a story behind it, at what point do you think about the story, if you think about it at all?

Steven Isserlis: In this case, all the time. I think I can say every bar what Strauss is depicting, because it’s so cinematic and pictorial. In fact, one of my ambitions—because I’ve recorded this piece already—is to make a film of it, probably with animation or a mixture of animation and live actors without words. Strauss himself said he could depict different types of beer in music—he’s that specific.

I remember, the first time I heard “Don Quixote,” the cello part was actually played by Paul Tortelier, who was great. But I hated the piece, because I got completely lost and I didn’t know what was going on. It’s a great piece, but whether it works as absolute music, I’m not sure. It’s definitely program music.  

Do you have any favorite or reference recordings of “Don Quixote”?

I never listen to recordings of pieces I’m playing, because it’s too easy to get influenced. But of course if I did listen to one, I’d listen to Strauss’s own, with Mainardi.

Actually, I recent heard on the radio a very rare, recently discovered recording of Casals and Lionel Tertis, the great violist, playing “Don Quixote” from London before World War II. They found this incomplete tape, and they played it on an American radio station; I was traveling in Australia at the time, but I happened to tune in on my computer and managed to hear it. I must say, Casals was great, he’s my hero, but Lionel Tertis—who was born on exactly the same day as Casals, on December 29, 1876—was quite a revelation as Sancho Panza.

In interviews with you, the main composers who come up are Schumann, Bach, maybe Dvořák. What’s your relationship like with Richard Strauss?

Mixed. I love “Don Quixote,” “Till Eulenspiegel,” and “Don Juan.” It sort of stops there. I’m very ignorant about it, but I went to see “Der Rosenkavalier” this summer, and I wasn’t blown away. Everybody said it was so beautiful—it is so beautiful, but I found it slightly oily. I don’t quite trust his soul. He wasn’t a great man. I was slightly put off when I read a letter he wrote to Cosima Wagner at the end of the 19th century, after Bayreuth that year, saying, “May I say that there are too many Jews at Bayreuth.” That didn’t endear him to me [laughs].

But when he’s being funny, when he’s talking about somebody else’s emotions, I think he’s wonderful. When he’s talking about his own emotions…I would rather listen to some more Schumann, or Janáček, or whatever.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2jJqeCgOLuc

Robert Schumann, Fünf Stücke im Volkston Op. 102; Steven Isserlis (Cello), Christoph Eschenbach (Piano)

You’ve mentioned before that you’re not a fan of Wagner. Maybe the parts of Strauss that you dislike are those that remind you of Wagner.

Probably. I dislike anything I find unhealthy in music, and I just don’t find his soul as healthy. It’s funny, somebody like Rachmaninoff, I adore. He’s such an honest soul, and he writes masterfully, just as he feels. Strauss, it seems to me, is always casting around for effects.

What are some other examples of music that you think is “unhealthy”?

Frederick Delius, the English composer [laughs]. It’s time to take a shower when you listen to his music. There was this guy once who was very keen on my sister, and as a romantic gesture he sent her a recording of the music of Delius. And she immediately broke off the relationship with him.

What is it like working with György Kurtág?

He’s sort of like a father to me in a way. He’s passionate about every note he writes. I know some people he drives crazy, but I find it wonderful: I play his pieces and he talks about them for hours. He comes up with image after image, and he’ll play on the little upright piano a bit of a Schubert sonata or some Bach or something: “This is where it comes from.” And he always explains it in terms of tonality.

I’ve now slightly expanded it, because he insisted, but I used to play a group of four pieces which lasted maybe 7-8 minutes, and I once worked out that I think we had spent 17 hours working on those pieces. I don’t see him that often, but I’ll call him up, and even over the phone he hears everything.

You’ve been playing a combination program of the Bach Cello Suites and Kurtág…

I recorded the Bach Suites about 10 years ago and I thought, “Great. I never have to play them again.” Not that I don’t love them—I adore them—but I get so nervous when I play them, it’s just hell. And then somehow, after years of badgering, I heard myself telling the director of Wigmore Hall that I’d do them again there. And then I had sleepless nights for 18 months until it happened.

But I found out that the dates I was doing them fell in the same week as Kurtág’s 90th birthday. So it just made perfect sense to combine Kurtág and Bach.

The historical performance practice world is a special place, with its own culture and orthodoxies. When playing Bach, how much do you engage with that world?

Mixed feelings. Jane Cowan, my teacher, taught a lot of the people who formed the backbone of the Amsterdam baroque, original instrument movement. And my sisters both play classical and baroque instruments in quite a few different orchestras. So I’m sort of steeped in it from that time, and I’ve worked with a lot of the famous baroque or classical conductors.

On the other hand, I can’t stand hearing someone playing Bach and they’re trying to show you how much they understand about baroque style—which is usually not very much. It sounds affected and unnatural. It should never sound affected and unnatural. If you read the treatises of the time, they’re basically just talking good musical sense.

Of course, there are a few things we need to learn about the language of baroque and classical music, how they notated different rhythms and things. But there’s such a variety as well between all these different treatises. You get . Orthodoxy and fundamentalists in all walks of life are a danger.

It sounds like you’ve done similar reading to people in that world, but come to different conclusions.

I sort of cheat. I love the books by Clive Brown, which set out what all the treatises have to say about the different questions you would have. They say such different things—in the end you just shrug and follow your instincts.

I’ve read a few times that you consider yourself a pessimistic person.

[Laughs] Definitely before concerts. My friends know, if they play with me, that I’m going to say “I hate life. Life hates me,” just before I go onstage. It’s part of my pre-concert ritual. I’m not pessimistic when I’m playing, I’m pessimistic before I’m playing.

Beethoven, Sonata for Cello and Piano Op. 102 No. 1; Steven Isserlis (Cello), Peter Evans (Piano)

Do you ever feel like doing less?

Yes. But do I say no enough? No. Maybe partly because I just didn’t have a career until I was 30 at least. I was like, “If I turn that down, I’ll never get a chance to do it again.”

Maybe it was a good thing that your career got started a little later, with hindsight.

Mixed. It was very hard at the time. But yes, I guess it gave me time to find my own voice—and when I see people being pushed into careers in their late teens or early 20s, I think they’re never going to be able to develop properly.

Before your career got started, what were you doing?

I was doing concerts, but only just managing to earn a living from them. And my parents supported me until at least my 20s. It was stressful thinking, “What am I going to be doing next season?” Somebody whom I know had quite a good expression: “I’m getting snow blindness looking at my diary.” Though it was never quite that bad.

Did you every consider getting a day job?

Well, playing in orchestra—that was the thing. Another friend of mine said that if I played in an orchestra, I would wreck the whole lot. My way of playing, my use of gut strings, just wouldn’t fit in an orchestra; so that was quite a powerful argument against it.  

Could you imagine spending a lot of your time teaching?

No. I’m not really a teacher, I’m a coach. I give a lot of masterclasses, and I think I can offer something there. But I’m so convinced in the way I think about pieces that I find it hard to allow the students to develop their own ideas. I’m a bit of a tyrant. I don’t mean to be, but having done so much work on every piece that I play, I find it hard to just let the student develop.

Also, I’m not very good at teaching technique. I think I’d squash any poor student who came to study with me each week, and I wouldn’t even be able to solve their technical problems. So it’s fine: I come in, give a masterclass, hopefully impart a set of values that I was given by my great teachers, and then their proper teacher can do all the work while I swan off to the next class.  

What cellists are you excited about these days?

It’s difficult to say names, because then the other ones I’ve listened to will be offended. I’m not thrilled with some of the cellists who are playing around today successfully, I find I can’t share their musical values. I mean, it’s not them, it’s the musical world, that kind of pushes these rather superficial musicians, instead of allowing people to develop.

But there are some new ones coming up who really care, who take chamber music really seriously. And violinists—when I was growing up I had a big problem with most new violinists. Now violinists are getting much more musicianly, I think.

Why did you have a problem with them?

[There was this] New York School of hyper, constant intensity, even when the music didn’t need it and didn’t suggest it at all, a sort of constant extrovert playing. I found that hideous.

Isn’t it an advantage with the cello that you have less of a tradition of pyrotechnics for their own sake?

Oh, you do. It’s not even pyrotechnics for their own sake, it’s this intensity. When you’re playing this sort of innocent Haydn melody, [he breathes heavily], I’ve got to reach the back of the hall and show everybody how macho I am. That sort of approach can be done as easily on the cello as on the violin or the piano.

Haydn, Cello Concerto No. 1 in C Major, I. Moderato; Steven Isserlis (Cello), Anthony Marwood (Leader), Norwegian Chamber Orchestra

There was recently another blind study claiming that Stradivarius violins…why are you rolling your eyes?

It was such a ridiculous test. I wrote about that in the Telegraph, because they had reported on this saying “The Strad myth has been laid to rest forever,” and then they had a picture of me, as if I had agreed with it. They played on the Strads for maybe 10 minutes. You can’t play on a Strad for 10 minutes and get to know anything about it. So the audience preferred the new instruments—yeah, the new instruments were probably louder!

I’m not at all saying that new instruments aren’t great. There are some great new instruments, my friend Christian Teztlaff plays a Greiner violin and it sounds beautiful. But to say Stradivarius is just a myth and it’s all a marketing thing is just ridiculous. If one says Beethoven was a genius, you’re not saying all modern music is bad. Beethoven was a genius; Stradivarius was a genius.

Do you practice when you’re on the road, or do you prepare everything at home in advance?

Both. I practice pretty constantly. I haven’t gone more than three consecutive days without playing the cello since I was 10 years old. And I don’t want to.

Even on vacation?

Even on vacation. I don’t really know what vacation is [laughs]. No, if I do occasionally go on vacation with my girlfriend or whatever, I have to play an hour a day. Otherwise I get twitchy. I miss it. I like the cello.

Your son plays cello. Was it important to you that he got a musical education?

It was important to me that he loved music. The thing is, when he was little, he thought every composer was Schumann, because he heard me talk about Schumann so much. Whatever it was. I remember him coming home saying, “Daddy, I heard some Schumann today!” His mother said, “Yes, I played him a Beethoven Symphony.” ¶

Jeffrey Arlo Brown

... has been an editor at VAN since 2015. His work has also appeared in Slate, The Baffler, The Outline, The Calvert Journal, and Electric Lit. He lives in Berlin.