“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
Musica Viva hasn’t presented Steven Isserlis since 2009, so it is especially exciting to welcome back one of our most popular recital artists ever to help celebrate our 70th birthday year. He occupies a unique position in the universe of cello players, balancing equally successful careers as a concerto soloist, recitalist and chamber music collaborator, while also being an author (part time) and Artistic Director of the International Musicians’ Seminar at Prussia Cove in Cornwall.
Steven’s musical partner for his national concert tour in June is the Canadian pianist Connie Shih who made her orchestral debut at the age of nine playing Mendelssohn’s first Piano Concerto with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. Since then she has appeared around the world in concert and on radio, in solo recital, chamber performances and concertos, and has been performing with Steven for many years now.
The repertoire for the tour was chosen by Steven as his assemblage of the finest penned by French composers, including the work he considers one of the greatest of the 20th century. Saint-Saëns’ first sonata joins Franck’s sonata in A along with the holder of that most exalted title, Fauré’s second sonata.
But this mighty music also serves as a perfect setting for the Australian premiere of a work most dear to Steven’s heart, Lieux Retrouvés, by his friend and long-time collaborator, Thomas Adès. The finale of this finely wrought piece is the most difficult music Steven has ever tackled, but he also finds the entire work an achievement of extraordinary imagination and beauty. Lieux Retrouvés was commissioned jointly by the Aldeburgh Festival, Wigmore Hall and Carnegie Hall, and its first commercial recording was made by Steven Isserlis with the composer himself at the piano.
Carl Vine AO
For more information on Steven Isserlis with Connie Shih, and to book your tickets, please visit: www.musicaviva.com.au/Isserlis
The first time I heard Ray Chen play violin live was at the Huntington Estate Music Festival in 2010, where he brought the house down more than once, including an impossibly assured performance of Ysaÿe’s fiendishly difficult Sonata for Two Violins alongside Dene Olding. He also treated us to a stellar version of Bach’s Chaconne (from Partita no 2), Chausson’s “Concert” (accompanied by piano quintet) and Schubert’s luscious Rondo for Violin and Strings with the Chamber Orchestra of the Australian National Academy of Music. He played quite a lot of other music as well, but I now find it hard to believe that he was able to present so much incredible repertoire in just four days!
Since then Ray has become a true global phenomenon, having given major performances alongside the great artists of the world in concert halls at every corner of it. It is a great thrill to have him undertaking his first Australian concert tour with Musica Viva this month, culminating in his long anticipated return to the Huntington Festival, once again in the company of the ANAM Chamber Orchestra.
I endorse Bartók’s proposition that competitions are better suited to horses than artists, but it might have taken the world a lot longer to discover Ray Chen’s prodigious talent if he hadn’t won both the Yehudi Menuhin (2008) and Queen Elisabeth (2009) Competitions by the age of 20. The first of these musical races also put him in touch with one particular jury member, the incredible violin virtuoso, and Ray’s childhood idol, Maxim Vengerov. Although Ray would certainly have risen to prominence sooner or later, Vengerov’s support and mentorship helped ensure that this happened a lot sooner than later.
The program for Ray’s November concert tour closes with archetypal pyrotechnics in a set of showpieces by Sarasate, including the iconic Zigeunerweisen. These grow from a decidedly serious ground, however, being preceded by Bach’s incredible E major Partita for unaccompanied violin. The first half of the program helps display other sides of Ray’s musical personality, moving from the classical elegance of Mozart’s A major Sonata (K305 ) to Prokofiev’s alternately beautiful, haunting and sparkling second Violin Sonata.
Ray’s first commercial CD was recorded in Australia, accompanied by outstanding Melbourne pianist Timothy Young. In a town that seems to have an inexhaustible supply of excellent pianists, Timothy stands out for the breadth of his expertise and his impressive combination of virtuosity and sensitivity. This concert tour unites the two for the first time since that recording.
Carl Vine AO
For more information on Ray Chen with Timothy Young, and to book your tickets, please visit; www.musicaviva.com.au/chen
I was recently asked to try to describe our 2015 International Concert Season to someone who knew little or nothing about Musica Viva. Here is my attempt:
Musica Viva’s founder, Richard Goldner, an inventor and viola player, fled Austria for Australia in 1939 in the wake of Hitler’s invasion of Vienna. Distressed to discover chamber music was non-existent in Sydney, he formed a performing ensemble in honour of his teacher who had perished in a Nazi concentration camp. The first concert was presented in Sydney on 8th December 1945.
Over the years Musica Viva evolved into a concert presenter, focussed on importing the world’s finest chamber musicians. It is now the world’s largest entrepreneur of chamber music.
Our 2015 season starts with a great jolt of invention with the Canadian period chamber orchestra Tafelmusik, and their new staged multimedia extravaganza, House of Dreams. As a special birthday treat we’ve saved up our most popular performers of the past decade: Steven Isserlis and Paul Lewis from Britain, the Modigliani Quartet from France, and the Eggner Trio from Austria. Sydney’s own Goldner Quartet has a special national concert tour to mark its own anniversary of 20 years. Just one group appears for us for the very first time – the brilliant UK vocal ensemble I Fagiolini.
The season comprises seven ensembles that tour the whole country, presenting two concerts each in Sydney and Melbourne. It is constructed around the chamber music pillars of two string quartets plus one piano trio. To those I add a recitalist (or two as is the case in 2015), a larger or outside-the-square event (Tafelmusik) and some sort of vocal component (I Fagiolini). Each tour must contain repertoire of the highest quality representing contrasting musical styles or periods, and they are spaced throughout the year to maximise contrast.
No special education or experience is needed to enjoy chamber music. Some of our most dedicated patrons are folk who have discovered it by accident, and been captivated by the extraordinary beauty of witnessing at first hand the intimate musical interaction of virtuosi playing the music that they most adore. Nothing is needed but good ears and an open mind.
Beethoven was often employed by the aristocracy, but his music became famous through outdoor “promenade” concerts for the general public. There is nothing innately highbrow about classical music – it is simply fine music best enjoyed while giving it your undivided attention.
Musica Viva has a national education program that reaches more than 270,000 students each year, plus hundreds of outreach events including Masterclasses for young musicians and training events, concerts in regional centres, festivals and other presentations. This is all part of Musica Viva’s broader philanthropic purpose as a not-for-profit organisation – we do whatever we can to improve the quality and appreciation of music in Australia. The idea is simple enough: music makes the world a better place.
Carl Vine AO
For more information on Musica Viva’s 2015 International Concert Season, the Musica Viva Festival, and the 70th Anniversary, please visit;www.musicaviva.com.au/2015
What am I looking forward to in Musica Viva’s 2015 season? In these kinds of articles one is generally discouraged from saying “everything,” which makes my life difficult, as I’m genuinely looking forward to all that next year has to offer.
If I am to choose some highlights, then I cannot help but start with our 70th anniversary gala program featuring violinist Maxim Vengerov. To me the program reads like a roll-call of violinists’ favourite works, but here’s the catch – I’ve heard very few of these works performed live at the highest level. Bach and Kreisler are staples of the student violinist repertoire, and such glorious fun to play, so how much more exciting to hear them performed by a real live professional!
In our International Concert Season Tafelmusik promises a special start to the year, with their beautifully programmed and presented House of Dreams. Having heard them on two previous occasions I also can’t wait to welcome back the Eggner Trio, who always look so joyful on stage, and are impeccably charming off it. Speaking of charm, I distinctly remember the Modigliani Quartet’s stylish and elegant performance of the Debussy Quartet on their last tour, so it will be interesting to see what they bring to Westlake’s String Quartet no 2 on this tour. And we can’t go past string quartets without mentioning the Goldner Quartet, whose playing I have long admired, celebrating their 20th anniversary next year, performing a new work by Paul Stanhope no less!
In the Musica Viva Festival the obvious drawcard for many will be cellist Mischa Maisky; and I’m certainly looking forward to hearing him perform some of the Bach Cello Suites. But I’m also eager to hear Alexandar Madžar again, having delighted in his playing, and his company, at the 2012 Huntington Estate Music Festival. And there are plenty of performers I’m looking forward to hearing for the first time, including Bella Hristova, Nicolas Altstaedt, and the Doric String Quartet.
These are just some of the things I’m looking forward to, but no doubt there will be many new discoveries along the way. I think we can safely say 2015 will be a happy birthday for Musica Viva.
Subscription packages for Musica Viva’s 2015 International Concert Season and Musica Viva Festival are on sale now. Subscribe today at; www.musicaviva.com.au/2015
Chamber music lover and Musica Viva volunteer, Tomas Drevikovsky, discusses the repertoire English pianist, Imogen Cooper, will perform on her upcoming Australian tour. Most of the repertoire focuses on the extrodinary musical and emotional kinship between Clara and Robert Schumann and their friend and protégé Johannes Brahms – and in particular on Clara, another ground-breaking female pianist.
SCHUMANN Novellette in D major, op 21 no 2
SCHUMANN Davidsbündlertänze op 6
BRAHMS Theme and Variations in D minor (arr. from String Sextet op 18)
SCHUBERT Piano Sonata no 21 in B flat major, D960
For more information on Imogen Cooper, and to book your tickets to see this repertoire performed live in concert, please visit; www.musicaviva.com.au/cooper
The start of the 19th century was an extraordinarily prolific period in Western music. Beethoven was reaching his productive peak while, in the background, Schubert was discovering ever deeper substance within the language of diatonic harmony. Schumann and Brahms quickly followed Schubert’s path, leading to the primacy of the Romantic impulse in European music.
This epoch resonates profoundly with celebrated British pianist Imogen Cooper, who has compiled a brilliant program exploring these compositional connections for this, her first, recital tour of Australia. Although widely acclaimed as a concerto soloist and chamber musician, she is probably most renowned for her recordings of solo piano music by Schubert and Schumann, making this tour an opportunity, unique in this country, to see this singularly talented performer in her favourite guise.
Schumann’s charming Novellette (op 21 no 2) joins his brilliant Davidsbündlertänze as an intense homage to that composer filling the first half. The second half opens with a musical oddity: Brahms’ arrangement for solo piano of the Theme and Variations from his own first string sextet. Brahms created this especially for the masterful pianist Clara Schumann, who was deeply enamoured of the sextet, so filling out the circle that joins these three composers in historical unity. Schubert’s massive B flat major sonata brings the concert to a fitting close.
For more information on Imogen Cooper, and to book your tickets, please visit; www.musicaviva.com.au/cooper