You don’t forget a Steven Isserlis performance. On stage, he has a physical, sensual relationship with his cello; so much so that you sometimes feel you’re eavesdropping on something too intimate to be displayed in public. If you had to create a stereotype of an overwrought cellist, it would be Isserlis, with his mop of thick, curly hair, otherworldly gaze into the middle distance, and perennial state of rapture. “I never think about what I do on stage, and if I saw it, I’d probably be horrified,” he says sheepishly. But that intensity is what makes Isserlis’ music-making so special.
When I meet him at his home in northwest London, he seems much younger than his soon-to-be 50 years, a half-century he celebrates with a concert on Tuesday at London’s Wigmore Hall. But anyone hoping for a birthday performance from the cellist himself will be disappointed. “John Gilhooly [the Wigmore Hall’s Artistic Director] asked if I wanted to mark the occasion at the hall, and I said, ‘certainly not by playing.’ Why would I ruin my birthday by being nervous and miserable? So I thought if I could persuade Andras Schiff and Radu Lupu to play the Schubert F Minor Fantasy for Piano duet — which I also had played at my 40th birthday — that would be fun. So I match-made them, as they’ve never performed together before, and Radu will also play some Schumann” — Isserlis’ favorite composer — “and Andras, some Bach.” As well as these two stars of international pianism (Isserlis does a wicked impression of his friend Schiff, perfectly mimicking his soft-focused Hungaro-English), other musical celebrities giving their services in honor of Isserlis are “the singers I’ve probably worked most with”: soprano Felicity Lott and tenor Mark Padmore, and Joshua Bell, the American violinist Isserlis says is “like a younger brother; I’ve been playing with him for 21 years,” as well as pianist Jeremy Denk.
There aren’t many musicians who could call on a similar roster of friends to play for them, and, Isserlis admits, “it’s very nice. I do make friends, it seems.” There’s a musical reason for all this amicability. Whatever he’s playing, whether the Schumann concerto in Moscow (he’s just flown back from Russia when I meet him), or sonatas with Thomas Ades, Isserlis’ approach is the same. “For me, everything is chamber music. I always describe myself as a chamber music player, even when I’m doing orchestral concerts with Mikhail Pletnev — who’s also becoming a good friend — or playing pieces for solo cello, which are still musical dialogues.” It all goes back to Isserlis’ childhood. “My sisters are both musicians [Rachel is a violinist, and Annette, a viola player], my father was a keen amateur, and my mother was a piano teacher. So chamber music, playing together, was part of the family. From the start I was taught to look at music as a whole, not as a collection of individual parts.”
Isserlis is scathing about the sort of international soloist who just performs their part in a concerto without responding to what is happening around them. “Cellists tend to be better than violinists in that sense; but when I hear people playing in exactly the same way, whatever orchestra they’re appearing with, I just don’t understand it. They don’t know the whole score. The equivalent is an actor who learns their part without knowing what the other actors are saying: it doesn’t make any sense!”