Cellist Steven Isserlis on Schumann

We spoke with cellist Steven Isserlis  ahead of our 30 April concert. Steven writes about his deep love of Schumann, and the cello concerto that stole his heart

Read the full programme notes.

“… it’s such a magical masterpiece, every note perfect.”

Your relationship with the Philharmonia goes back to your MMSF Fellowship, and over the years we have been privileged to have you as soloist over 20 times. What keeps you coming back?

Wow! Over 20 times? I didn’t realise. That’s an honour… I really look forward to my visits to the Philharmonia – not only because it’s a great orchestra, but also because there is such a warm, sympathetic atmosphere within the group. And they’re so patient! I’ve made two recordings with them, the second being of the late music of John Tavener. John’s music always involves a lot of long held notes in the orchestra (and as always, the recording process meant a lot of waiting around for the players); other groups might have been impatient – but not the Philharmonia! Their attitude was perfect – committed and supportive.

“I really look forward to my visits to the Philharmonia – not only because it’s a great orchestra, but also because there is such a warm, sympathetic atmosphere within the group.”

You are an enthusiastic advocate for Schumann’s music, always willing to take up the pen to help his cause. What is the impulse behind that effort and why does his music need championing?

I don’t know why I love Schumann’s music (and his personality) so much – I can’t explain it any more than I could explain why my closest friends are my closest friends! I just find his music utterly glorious, and his story heartbreaking. Among my favourite works of his are several of the last ones; unfortunately, a lot of rubbish has been written about his late music, and I feel that it does need defending. I’m ready to do that at any hour of day or night!

Tell us about the Cello Concerto, a piece obviously close to your heart – what is your history with it?

The first movement is a real journey of the soul, opening with a love song, travelling to dark regions in the central section, and then returning to love and tenderness; the slow movement is a glimpse of paradise, the last an outpouring of joy. It’s unlike any other concerto for any instrument (including those of Schumann himself for piano and violin).

I remember hearing it quite a few times as a boy – and it made no impression; then I heard Casals’ recording, and suddenly it made sense, and I could remember the whole thing. I didn’t learn it, however, until I was studying at Oberlin College, in Ohio. I performed it there, with my room-mate, the conductor Michael Morgan, conducting; unfortunately I played really badly at that concert! But all the practice didn’t go to waste; the next time I played it was far better – and since then it’s become the concerto I play most often (along with the Haydn C major). And I’m not tired of it in the slightest – it’s such a magical masterpiece, every note perfect.

Upcoming online concerts

Martyn Brabbins, conductor, smiling at camera, wearing blue shirt and jacket
Online concert

Life in Vienna, Death in Venice

Martyn Brabbins – conductor
Steven Osborne – piano

  • R Strauss Festmusik der Stadt Wien
  • Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4
  • Britten Death in Venice Suite (arr. Steuart Bedford)

Available to book from 1 April

Online concert

Salonen: the finale I, with Yefim Bronfman

Esa-Pekka Salonen – conductor
Yefim Bronfman– piano

  • Beethoven Symphony No. 1
  • Liszt Piano Concerto No. 2
  • Stravinsky Symphonies of Wind Instruments
  • Sibelius Symphony No. 7

Online concert

Salonen: the finale II, with Mitsuko Uchida

Esa-Pekka Salonen – conductor
Mitsuko Uchida – piano
Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay – violin

  • Bach arr. Klemperer 'Bist du bei mir'
  • Bach arr. Webern Ricercata 2 a 6 voci
  • Bach arr. Berio Contrapunctus XIX
  • Bach Prelude from Partita No. 3 in E major for solo violin BWV 1006.1
  • Esa-Pekka Salonen Fog (World premiere, version for orchestra)
  • Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 3

Streamed from Southbank Centre

Online concerts from our London home


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