An Interview with Steven Isserlis
“My words are going to be immortalised,” says Steven Isserlis.
Yet again. He must be sick of it by now.
“No, it’s attention. And I’m never sick of attention!”
Isserliss has self-parody down to a fine art.
His tour for Musica Viva’s 70th anniversary season will be his 16th trip to Australia, and his fourth Musica Viva tour. How can he bear the long flight?
“I like the flight!”
“I do. You can watch movies, you can eat a lot, you can read books – I like it. And I LOVE Australia when I get there. I feel so at home. I just love the lifestyle, and the positive attitude to life. The audiences are open. For my last Musica Viva tour I played an all-Schumann programme, and we filled the Melbourne hall twice over. I don’t think I could do that in any other country in the world.”
This time, Isserlis brings a French-themed programme.
“Well, basically Gallic – Cesar Franck was actually Belgian. And Tom Adès’ piece has a French title. The pieces go really well together.”
Saint-Saëns, whose first cello sonata he will play, has been a personal love for some time.
“A love, yes,” Isserlis agrees. “Not with the same passion that I adore Fauré, but I think he’s wonderful, both as a composer and as a figure. He was a complete Renaissance man, and that’s one of his best chamber pieces, I think.”
The composer’s mother, whom Isserlis considers to have been something of a monster, hated Saint-Saëns’ first attempt at a last movement, which prompted him to destroy and re-write it.
“I have it to hand,” says Isserlis. “I’ll read it to you. He had told her that he was worried he might not play as well as some of the other great pianists who were performing. She replied ‘…you make me ill with your fears. You are merely a coward. I treat you with contempt. I believed I’d brought up a man. I have raised up only a girl of degenerative stock. Play as you ought to play, an artist of great talent. Either you will play well, or I will have renounced you as my child.’
“Anyway, the sonata is really a wonderful piece. And perhaps she did do the piece a favour, because the original last movement was good, but the new last movement is outstanding – wonderful. A very strong, dramatic piece, a deeply-felt, beautiful, stormy piece.”
The programme moves on to Fauré’s second cello sonata.
“For me the greatest 20th century cello sonatas are the two by Fauré. I adore them. Passionately. They are completely original, and ecstatic. They are really from another world. Fauré was very frail when he wrote it, and completely deaf, and he just created this amazing world of joy. Such energy!
“I played that piece, I think, in my second recital ever. I was 15. My teacher loved Fauré. We named Gabriel, my son, after Fauré. The more you know his pieces, the more you love them. It never fails to astonish me. Fauré touches something inside me.
“He was not necessarily an innovator. He was writing at a time when the Second Viennese School was in full swing. Stravinsky had written The Rite of Spring long before. I suppose he was even more backward than Debussy or Ravel. But it was different. I mean, Bach was considered old-fashioned in his day.”
Thomas Adès, who is unquestionably an innovator, wrote “Lieux retrouvés” for Isserlis.
“I was very surprised when he agreed. One can’t persuade Tom to do anything. He’s got a will of iron. But then he agreed to record it, with lots of other music, and to orchestrate the piece – the first concert will be in Lucerne in 2016.”
It was Adès’ 2004 opera “The Tempest” that, as Isserlis tells it, really made him fall in love with the composer’s music.
“He’s amazing, because he takes you everywhere. He knows so much music, and he can take any language and make it his own. He has his own voice, not ignoring the past, but drawing upon it. He knows exactly what he wants.”
Isserliss tries to perform “Lieux retrouvés” as often as he can.
“Once you’ve learned it, you want to carry on. It’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever played in my life. If you hear it, you’ll know why. It’s monstrously hard. But it’s fun. It’s a romp. The difficulty should be incidental – the audience is supposed to enjoy it.”
Returning to familiar territory, Isserlis rounds off the concert with the cello version of César Franck’s famous Violin Sonata in A major.
“I came to know Franck’s music through Fauré. Fauré loved Franck. Saint-Saëns didn’t.”
“Oh, they just didn’t get on. At one stage they were in love with the same woman. Eventually she went for Franck.”
Isserlis has a knack of gossiping about dead composers as though they were in the next room, perhaps a partial clue towards his trick of bringing so much life to their scores.
He can segue from Augusta Holmes, the woman Franck stole from Saint-Saëns, to his pianist Connie Shih as though the two women were contemporaries.
“Yes, I first heard her when she was 17, in Vancouver, playing Saint-Saëns, actually. And I said, ‘Who is this girl? She’s AMAZING!’
“I probably work with her more than with any other musician. She’s wonderful. Very passionate playing, very warm, also very delicate. She has been likened to Martha Argerich, and although she is very different, there is something of that instinctive, natural playing. A wonderful artist.”
Isserlis’s reflections on Musica Viva’s four core values are characteristically pithy.
“Definitely. You need that. This implies good quality, of course.”
“Yes. If not perversity.”
What constitutes challenge for him?
“Tom Adès. For instance.”
“Actually in the pieces I’m playing, it’s ecstasy. Which is still about communication. The Fauré, the end of the Franck, the last movement of the Adès – they are all very joyous. I like that in music. It’s important.”
Interview by Shirley Apthorp, photos by Keith Saunders
For more information on Steven Isserlis with Connie Shih, and to book your tickets, please visit: www.musicaviva.com.au/Isserlis