Unearthing and restoring lost treasures, recording six CDs in just over a year, writing books, performing and much more… does Steven Isserlis ever rest?
FOR Steven Isserlis, there will never be enough cello music. In a solo career spanning three decades, the 53-year-old cellist , who has a trademark mop of curly hair – a lasting sign of his boyhood love of The Beatles – has made it his continuing mission to expand his instrument’s repertoire in a way that looks as much to the past as it does to the future.
Like many of his peers, he has inspired major new commissions from the likes of Wolfgang Rihm (a 2006 cello concerto) and Thomas Adès (Lieux retrouvé for cello and piano, premiered at the Aldeburgh Festival in 2009). And let’s not forget it was Isserlis who, back in 1989, first introduced the world to John Taverner’s iconic Proms commission, The Protecting Veil.
But alongside his deep commitment to living composers, Isserlis’s obsession with seeking out and digging up lost treasures of the past has turned him into something of a musical Indiana Jones.
“There are at least two Haydn cello concertos lying undiscovered, some by Mendelssohn, Schumann, Shostakovich and Fauré, and even a Mozart one that I’ve seen in a 19th-century catalogue,” he says, with the obvious relish of one hoping to bring them back to life. “Who knows what might turn up next in some long-lost East European collection?”
It’s with that adventurer’s hat on that Isserlis comes to Glasgow next week, where he will perform, with Donald Runnicles and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, a Suite for Cello and Orchestra of music by Debussy that has been assembled by composer Sally Beamish.
“When Debussy was very young and staying with Tchaikovsky’s famous patron, Madame von Meck, he did write a suite for cell and orchestra,” Isserlis says. “All we know for certain, though, is that the fourth movement was an Intermezzo and that it survived in a version for cello and piano.”
The idea of trying to recapture the spirit of Debussy’s original conception lay dormant in Isserlis’s mind until a chance encounter with Beamish’s music reawakened the possibility. “I was playing the Schumann [Cello Concerto] in Sweden in a programme that also featured one of Sally’s works. My immediate reaction was ‘she does orchestrate beautifully’, so I put it to her that it would be great to have Debussy’s suite again, and could she orchestrate the existing music and add other Debussy pieces from the same period to recreate the idea of the suite? She liked the idea.”
Beamish used the Intermezzo as the opening movement, then went on to add orchestral arrangements of another cello movement, two piano pieces (Rêverie and Danse bohémienne) and a Debussy song. “I love the way Sally put her own slant on the music. She clearly loves Debussy, and the result is a clear mixture of him and her. It’s full of vitality and humour.”
Isserlis recorded the finished work as part of a CD called ReVisions with the Tapiola Symphony Orchestra on the BIS label, which he released two years ago – dedicated to his wife who had just died of cancer – and which features similar collaborations with other composers.
For instance, he had never been 100 per cent happy with Kabalevsky’s version of Prokofiev’s Concertino, left unfinished when the composer died in 1952. So he asked the late Russian musicologist and composer Vladimir Blok to rescore it. In the same vein he got film composer Christopher Palmer to orchestrate Ernest Bloch’s From Jewish Life. Then there were the two Ravel songs that Australian Chamber Orchestra director Richard Tognetti made for Isserlis as fillers for a concert tour they made together. Hey presto, Isserlis had a ready-made collection of works that could be packaged into a single album.
The Ravel will also be performed in Glasgow next week in its orchestral version. The original idea was also to follow that up with the original piano accompanied version in the same evening’s late-night Coda recital with Runnicles at the piano. But that has been ditched in favour of two Glazunov pieces - Mélodie and Sérénade Espagnole, Op.20 and Chant du ménestrel (Minstrel’s Song), Op.71 – and still in partnership with Runnicles.
Back in the main orchestral programme, there’s more from those French masters of Impressionism in the shape of Debussy’s La Mer and three delicious Ravel masterpieces – Une barque sur l’océan, Valses nobles et sentimentales and La Valse.
Isserlis’s visit to Scotland comes at the start of year that is busier than any others he can remember, especially on the recording front. “I have to record six CDs over the next 13 months – I normally aim for a maximum of two a year,” he says. These include the Dvorák concerto, music by his old friend Thomas Adès, and all the Beethoven sonatas with Robert Levin.
At the same time, his performance schedule ranges from a series of straightforward concerts in Italy next month that he will direct from the cello, to presenting more of his celebrated family concerts in New York. “I have my own series on at 92nd Street Y [an arts centre on the Upper East Side of Manhattan], which I do about three times a year,” he says.
His next one in March is called The Prodigy with the Ponytail, in which Isserlis and an assorted of musician friends are joined by a narrator to relate the story of Mozart to children as young as six.
It’s a project that has grown out of one of Isserlis’ many creative sidelines – as a writer of children’s books that include When Beethoven Threw The Stew and Why Handel Waggled His Wig.
“I started writing these to keep my son amused,” he explains. “I couldn’t find anything for him to read about the composers, other than the usual sentimental stuff. They were meant to be purely functional – I never expected them to sell as well as they have.”
Add to that the occasional bit of newspaper writing, compiling musical puzzles on his website, an interest in period instrument performance and a dynastic connection to Karl Marx and Felix Mendelssohn, and the image of Isserlis the all-out musical action hero is hard to dispel.
• Steven Isserlis appears with the BBC SSO at the City Halls, Glasgow on 2 February. Tel: 0131-353 8000
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