Listen to this article
The pianist and composer Julius Isserlis, less well-known today for his own musical accomplishments than for those of his grandson, the celebrated cellist Steven Isserlis, was a man condemned to sacrifice his creative life for the simpler art of survival during Europe’s most troubled decades.
Born in 1888 in Moldova (then part of Russia), he studied under Sergei Taneyev, Tchaikovsky’s favourite student, and his talent as a pianist won him critical acclaim and prosperity. But the Bolsheviks took a less benign view of his activities, forcing him to play in factories under arduous conditions. When he was sent by Lenin on an ambassadorial tour of Europe in 1923, he seized the opportunity to leave his homeland.
He settled in Vienna, only for his glittering career once more to founder, this time against the rise of Nazism. In 1938, he was on tour in Britain when the Anschluss – the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany – was announced. Another flight to a haven, another life to rebuild.
Steven Isserlis, 56, has only vague memories of his grandfather: “I only really remember him when he was ill – there are some recordings of him playing the piano which are ruined by me making far too much noise!”
But as he has negotiated his own middle-aged years, the shadow of a remarkable life has loomed ever larger over him. In the sitting room of his home in west Hampstead, London, pride of place on the wall is taken by a recent discovery: his grandfather’s gold medal certificate from the Moscow conservatoire.
Now, with his sisters Rachel and Annette, and the pianist Sam Haywood, he is overseeing the release of a CD of Julius’s compositions for piano, out this week on the Hyperion label. The works are in turns melancholy, wistful, virtuosic but also, perhaps surprisingly, playful in parts.
I ask him what it must have been like, trying to sustain a musical life amid such social and personal turmoil. “I don’t think he was bitter,” Isserlis says. “The saddest thing is that he had to stop playing in his sixties, when he became ill. He had always wanted to make records, but he found during the sessions that he wasn’t able to play properly.”
“I adored him,” Isserlis adds. “As did everyone. He was a courteous, charming old gentleman of the old school. I was only nine when he died, and took his legacy for granted. But as time passed I thought about him more and more.”
Little surprise: every step in the Julius Isserlis story gives pause for thought. Such as the time when he applied for a flat in Vienna, only to be refused by a very old landlady whose aunt had had a bad experience with a mad, deaf musician who spat all over the floor. Steven’s father, then a young boy, vaguely remembered meeting the woman whose aunt knew Beethoven.
The relationship between the personal and the political is also the subject of Isserlis’s current series of concerts at the Wigmore Hall, “Music in the Shadow of War”, which runs until July. What fascinates him, he says, are the “infinite shades” of tone that composers adopted during the most testing of times.
He rattles off numerous examples of music that has no palpable connection with the wider turbulence of its composer’s life. “Schumann is the ultimate example: he really did have to flee, running through a field at night with his seven-months-pregnant wife during the revolutions of 48-49, and yet he was able to produce this gorgeous, heavenly, intimate music.
“Overtly political music doesn’t tend to be great music. But even there …there are no rules.”
We turn to Beethoven, and the release of Isserlis’s recording of the Cello Sonatas, also out this week. “I’ve grown into Beethoven,” he says. “As a lot of people have done. He wasn’t so important to me in my twenties. It wasn’t music I felt I had to play very much. But as you get older, it grows more and more on you.”
He talks about a music teacher at school, who helped fire his own fascination with music by pointing out the humour in much of it. “As, for instance, in the late Beethoven [String] Quartets.”
I raise an eyebrow. “Yes, absolutely. It is his most profound music but also some of his funniest. If you miss Beethoven’s humour, you miss Beethoven. It is so full of joy.” He says his great friend the composer John Tavener, who died last November, was another who became “obsessed” with Beethoven’s late work towards the end of his life.
Tavener wrote his best-known work, The Protecting Veil, for Isserlis, and his death affected the cellist greatly. “He was frail, and always said he could be gone at any minute but it shocked me more than I thought.” He heard the news shortly before a concert in Amsterdam, and dedicated the evening to Tavener. “The audience was moved, I didn’t realise just how popular he was throughout the world.” It can’t have been easy to give the concert, I say. “It was hard. A real heartfelt performance.”
I ask him about the criticism that attended Tavener’s work from much of the classical music establishment. “[The Protecting Veil] was special, and nobody has come up with anything like it,” he says. “Of course it means a lot to me personally.” We talk about the splintering of classical music in the 20th century, from Tavener’s spiritually-laden work at one extreme, to hard modernism at the other. “There is room for all of these languages,” says Isserlis.
Is modernism even capable of evoking the emotional responses that Tavener’s work does from so many people? “I can’t say I have ever been deeply moved by anything by [Pierre] Boulez,” he says. “But I have been deeply moved by pieces by Tavener. They speak to people.
“I think all these languages can coexist. John was becoming so liberal as he grew older, he wrote something praising Thomas Adès’s talent, and they are so very different.
“What I cannot stand is people who don’t believe in what they write, who write just for success. They have gone back to tonality because they just can’t bear not to get the standing ovations.” Is it easy to detect such blatant inauthenticity? “Oh yes. There is always this percussion coming in at the end. And what pass for tunes, probably with lots of quotes from pop or jazz or world music.
“If it is formulaic, I can’t stand it. If it comes from within, I can love any language.”
‘Beethoven: Cello Sonatas’, Steven Isserlis with fortepianist Robert Levin, Hyperion
‘Isserlis: Piano Music by Julius Isserlis’, performed by Sam Haywood, featuring Steven Isserlis, Hyperion, wigmore-hall.org.uk
Get alerts on Music when a new story is published