Isserlis doesn’t just form close personal bonds with the people he plays with — he feels it with the composers he plays as well. “From the start, my teacher, Jane Cowan, made me feel that the great composers were my friends.” And friendliest of all, for Isserlis, is Schumann. “I loved the name even before I knew the music. I never get tired of the music. I love his personality as well, there’s not a mean muscle in his body. It’s a bit of an obsession. I don’t understand it, it’s just — there.”
I think I can offer a hint: just like Schumann and the twin compositional personas he created, the impetuous Florestan and reflective Eusebius, there’s a deep dichotomy in Isserlis’ musical personality. No cellist is able to give themselves to the moment of performance, to attune themselves to the subtle give and take of concerto performance or chamber recital as much as Isserlis. Yet as well as this passionate side, few musicians are as ambitious and self-critical as Isserlis. “I do have a lot of energy,” Isserlis says, “and I was discussing where it all comes from with my sister the other day. I decided it’s my ego. My ego gives me energy.” Isserlis’ diary is full for the next few years, and he is away from home for eight months of every year. “I need to be so busy. It’s a comfort to me, because I had so little for such a long time. In my 20s, I was nervous if I would make a career at all.”
That nervous energy carries over on to the concert platform. “I get hugely nervous,” he says, “especially about memory. I’m very neurotic about memory. But sometimes just seeing a child in the front row, if I’m really nervous in a concert, will make me feel so much better.” Surely, after three decades of playing in public, nerves are easier to deal with now? “You don’t get over it. The upside of it, and the reason I don’t take any beta-blockers or anything, is that if I still get nervous, it means I still care. I’ve seen it happen in musicians who have been playing for 20 or 30 years; they’re not feeling that much any more, it’s become routine. That can’t happen to me because of my nerves. In concert, there are two parts of my brain: one part is thinking about the music and enjoying it, the other is saying, you’re going to forget, you’re going to forget. My sister Annette says she enjoys my concerts most when she knows I’m on edge — even if I don’t!”
But Isserlis is addicted to the rush of performance. Just as well: his concerts and recordings, typically using the burnished sound of gut strings rather than modern steel ones (“I’d feel I was betraying Schumann if I played him on steel strings,” he says), reveal the cello repertoire in a new light. His disc of Bach’s cello suites, released a couple of years ago after his 90-year-old father insisted he record them, is one of the great cello recordings.
Isserlis’ main respite from the stress of performing and programming (he has a series of children’s concerts in New York, and runs the annual chamber music courses at IMS Prussia Cove in Cornwall) is writing. Two books for children, Why Beethoven Threw the Stew and Why Handel Waggled his Wig, tell the stories of the lives of the great composers with infectious enthusiasm, and sometimes scatological detail; he’s also writing stories that will be set to music by Anne Dudley. After Goldipegs and the Three Cellos comes Cindercella. The terrible puns are Isserlis’ own.