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!”
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.
But his playing will always be the center of his life. That’s no surprise when he tells me of the week he’s just had. “I got off the plane on Monday to a message from Paul McCartney, who I saw on Thursday. He’s a lovely man.” McCartney’s new album, Electric Arguments, is on Isserlis’ table, even if he hasn’t got past the first track yet — “it’s very raucous” — and after playing with Pletnev in Moscow, he’s off to Germany to perform Haydn with Ton Koopman. I can see why he’s addicted.