Cellist Steven Isserlis on Schumann
“… 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
Santtu-Matias Rouvali – conductor
Pekka Kuusisto – violin
- Sibelius Violin Concerto
- Beethoven Symphony No. 6, Pastoral
Booking for Friends of the Philharmonia opens at 10am on Thursday, 1 July. General booking opens Thursday, 8 July.