Round the world for busy Steven

Steven Isserlis, cellist
Steven Isserlis, cellist

“I’M looking forward to playing in Sheffield for the first time in several years,” says Steven Isserlis, in town on Saturday to give a Music in the Round concert at the Crucible Studio.

“I believe that the first time I played there was around 1979 or so – which dates me horribly!”

If you haven’t already got a ticket to hear the internationally renowned London-born cellist of Russian descent, noted for his deep commitment to music, however, tough luck!

His reputation has preceded him and the concert is a sell-out.

It is a huge reputation the world over which finds him almost continually on the move.

The first four months of this year are representative of his globetrotting.

In January: Belgium, Berlin, New York, Philadelphia, back to Belgium last weekend and here on Saturday. In February: Glasgow, Leeds (a concerto, not recital as in Sheffield), Italy, France; Zagreb; Italy; London.

In March: New York, the San Francisco area, Los Angeles, Germany; the first ten days of April in Cornwall, then Germany, Belgium, London (the complete Beethoven cello/ piano works). Significantly, one of his pet hates is British Airways!

The four-month period largely takes in concerto performances (multiple, over days in some locations) with the odd recital, family concert and masterclass.

He pursues music education with almost evangelical zeal – the ten days in Cornwall are not a holiday but as artistic director for the last 13 years of the twice-yearly International Musicians Seminar at Prussia Cove where he performs and teaches.

He gives masterclasses all over the place, has penned two books, Why Beethoven Threw the Stew and Why Handel Waggled His Wig, for children, as well as three musical stories set to music by Anne Dudley, and recorded a CD with pianist Stephen Hough in Sheffield a fortnight ago, called Children’s Cello.

A long-time Beatles fan, hence his long curly locks, as a concerto soloist and chamber musician his repertoire is enormously wide – swelled by reviving many neglected works – from music by Bach (one of his passions) to an ever-increasing list of works written for him.

His ‘enthusiasms’ generally for composers are interesting, a fanatical one for Schumann, especially his late works; Carl Frühling, an Austrian (1868-1937) who Isserlis has done much to renew interest in; Saint-Saëns; the influential but largely ignored Sergei Taneyev; and Fauré.

His non-musical enthusiasms are no less eye-catching: The Marx Brothers, especially Harpo; authors Wilkie Collins and RC Hutchinson; Noel Langley’s The Land of Green Ginger; and the films of Christopher Guest.

But, back to music and the cellist’s concert this Saturday with Canadian pianist of repute Connie Shih, although he begins it without her with Britten’s Suite No 3, which like the first two, was written for Mstislav Rostropovich.

Inspired by the legendary Russian cellist’s playing of Bach’s solo cello suites, the Third dates from 1971 and is in nine continuous movements, although individual movements are thematically linked by four Russian themes – three from Tchaikovsky folk song arrangements.

A Soviet travel ban on the great man meant he couldn’t come to England, as scheduled, to perform it in May 1972, delaying the premiere until late December 1974 at Aldeburgh.

In a letter to Britten informing him of the situation, he wrote: “Ben, your suite is pure genius. If they forbid me from going abroad for a long time, please give me permission to play it for the first time in Moscow.”

Proceedings continue with Shostakovich’s comparatively early Op 40 cello sonata written in 1934 just before the notorious formalism accusations in Pravda. It is, however, typical of the composer – a sense of lyrical sweetness, yearning, gloomy, vitriolic, sarcastic.

Ravel’s Two Hebrew Melodies, composed in 1914, are actually songs but instrumentalists have long been attracted to them, especially the first and longest, Kaddisch, while the work ending the concert, Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No 3, is probably the best-known piece being performed.

Isserlis says: “It’s not a themed programme – though Shostakovitch and Britten were friends. In fact, Britten played the third cello suite to Shostakovich – on the piano! – in Moscow, well before the premiere.

“And, of course, Shostakovich worshipped Beethoven, and he also liked to write in the Jewish idiom. So the whole programme could be traced back to Shostakovich, but they are all wonderful pieces.”