The ‘dream world’ of Steven Isserlis

Don’t ever tell Steven Isserlis, as I foolishly did, that the cello is a minority instrument. He will pounce.

“It’s everyone’s favourite instrument! The cello is what people play in romantic novels, it’s closest to the human voice.”

That leaves room for debate, I say, but Isserlis will have none of it. He has a knock-out argument up his sleeve: the cello’s dark, wistful timbre touches the heart more than any other instrument. “That’s why it’s so frustrating that more composers didn’t write more for the cello.”

Isserlis has been doing his best to make up the deficit. Known for his mop of curly hair, which he dubs his “natural umbrella” as we meet on a rainy afternoon in London, he has commissioned a series of works based on sketches left by great composers of the past. The whole of his latest CD, ReVisions, is made up of such music by Debussy, Ravel and others. And at this summer’s Proms he gave the first performance of a concerto that bears the name of Vaughan Williams but is just as much the work of contemporary English composer David Matthews.

Never mind that this sort of borrowing and adapting was common in centuries past. In our purist age, tinkering with a dead composer’s unfinished score is regarded in some quarters as heresy. If a great composer left incomplete sketches, it surely means they judged the material not worth taking further.

Such arguments cut no ice with Isserlis. He recites the names of composers known to have written works for solo cello for which no score has survived. Haydn “wrote at least four concertos”. The disappearance of a Mendelssohn cello concerto is “a great loss”. Brahms wrote a duo for cello and piano, also lost. “I like to expand the repertoire [for cello] and if there’s just a fragment, I want to make the most of it. That’s why I’ve commissioned reconstructions.”

But, I counter, aren’t you living in a dream world, believing these really are the works of great composers when they are nothing of the sort? “Living in a dream world is what a musician is supposed to do,” retorts Isserlis with a disarming smile. “Debussy did complete [his work for cello] – the score just got lost. Vaughan Williams didn’t know how to go on [with his 1942 cello concerto], but he kept coming back to it. If a major composer writes anything for cello, I want to see it.”

It’s hard to contradict Isserlis when you hear him playing these pieces with such intensity and commitment. It’s not as if he is turning to the past for want of anything better to play, for he has commissioned plenty of new pieces from living composers. He gave the first performance of John Taverner’s The Protecting Veil back in 1989, and his championing of Wolfgang Rihm’s Schumann-esque cello concerto earlier this year at the Barbican was a revelation: here was a work on a grand scale, drawing inspiration from tradition yet confidently expressed in the language of today. Thomas Adès’s duo for cello and piano features prominently in Isserlis’s tour programmes, and he talks hopefully of an Adès concerto.

His latest challenge is a piece by György Kurtág, to be premiered in New York alongside four other Kurtág works. “Rather brave, actually,” muses Isserlis, as if suddenly reminding himself of the task ahead.

Kurtág’s new work lasts two minutes, the other four not much longer. The veteran Hungarian modernist is notoriously fussy about whom he collaborates with, and Isserlis reveals that his studies with the composer ran for a nine-hour stretch. “That’s how he is . . . ”

But how can such short pieces make an impact? “What you find with a lot of music today is that composers, especially in America, will do anything to make their music accessible. I’m all for tonal music but it mustn’t be a cop-out. Kurtág always analyses his music in terms of tonality, but no one could accuse him of taking the easy way out.”

Isserlis has also commissioned a song cycle for voice and cello from British composer James Francis Brown, to be premiered next year at London’s Wigmore Hall. He describes the music as “very traditional. That’s fine if it’s original and skilled and sincere. It’s going to be French [poetry].”

Mention of “Wigmore Hall” and “French” brings us to Isserlis’s appointment as the Wigmore’s artist in residence, starting next month with a series devoted to Saint-Saëns, Fauré and Ravel. When I venture the opinion that Saint-Saëns might not be on a par with the other two, Isserlis runs to his defence. Saint-Saëns, he points out, taught Fauré, who taught Ravel. “The more you know about Saint-Saëns, the more you love him. He was an astronomer who designed his own telescope, he produced a book about philosophy, he was an animal rights campaigner, he wrote plays and poems and was a wonderful organist. He had a fantastic melodic gift. The second Trio really pushes the boundaries – it’s so free in form, it’s almost improvised.”

A bit like Isserlis’s working life? Among his less publicised activities is the artistic directorship of Prussia Cove, an idealistic chamber music retreat in Cornwall where his wide-ranging friendships come in handy: Adès and the tenor Mark Padmore teach there. “We don’t allow words like ‘career’ or ‘projection’.”

His performance schedule takes him to New York four or five times a year, “which is still not enough to see all my friends. The only places I’m not so keen to visit are where I don’t have friends, such as Hong Kong. I went there in June and didn’t know anyone, so I took my son” – a reference to Gabriel, 20, who is studying film in upstate New York.

This seems a cue to mention Isserlis’s wife Pauline, who died in April of cancer. “I played immediately afterwards,” he recalls matter-of-factly. “It was the best way – better than sitting at home and moping. I’m lucky, I have an outlet. . . ”

It’s time to go – Isserlis has promised to attend a wedding anniversary party for his former chauffeur – but before we part I can’t resist asking why, at 51, he holds on to his greying Bach-like mop of hair, which has a distinctly 1970s look.

“I did cut it once and hated it,” he explains. “I was brought up with the Beatles from the age of four. Long hair meant happiness.”

As it evidently still does for the irrepressible Isserlis.

‘ReVisions’ is on BIS. Steven Isserlis’s Wigmore Hall residency begins on November 11 with a programme of chamber music by Saint-Saëns, Fauré and Ravel.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.