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Q&A with Steven Isserlis

This afternoon we were due to perform Kabalevsky’s Cello Concerto No. 2 at the Royal Festival Hall with world-leading cellist Steven Isserlis. While we are unable to perform it for you in person, here is some insight from Steven about the piece itself and his relationship with the Philharmonia.

Steven Isserlis, credit Satoshi Aoyagi

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?

Well, I think that the Orchestra must be composed of masochists, because I keep getting asked back! But that aside, I really like the Orchestra – not just their marvellous playing, but also their attitude. For instance, our most recent project together was a recording of music by John Tavener. I’ve had trouble in the past with some orchestras playing his music! The endless long-held chords can be – well, a challenge for some. But the Philharmonia players couldn’t have been nicer, or musically more co-operative. It made all the difference.

You give frequent masterclasses worldwide. What advice do you have for your students on finding their musical voice?

Well, there’s lots of advice, but basically I find myself getting them to look more closely at the score, trying to understand what the composer is saying to them.

You also often play for children and also write musical storybooks. How did that come about?

I’ve actually written two books for children; and also, three musical stories with the composer Anne Dudley: Little Red Violin, Goldiepegs and the three Cellos and Cindercella. I suppose that my interest in writing and playing for children came about after the birth of my son Gabriel – whose 30th birthday is on the day I play with the Philharmonia at Royal Festival Hall!

Kabalevsky’s Second concerto, which you have recorded and play often, is something of a hidden gem. What attracts you to his music?

Well, he’s a controversial figure among those who remember Soviet musical politics; but his music is wonderful! And this concerto is one of his masterpieces. I first heard it in the classic recording by the dedicatee, my hero Daniil Shafran, with Kabalevsky conducting. I fell in love immediately. I do think that it’s one of the most exciting works ever written for the cello. More recently, I’ve been playing his cello sonata, which I love equally.

What concerts from next season would you recommend?

There are so many unmissable concerts between September and December! But if forced – cruelly – to choose just one, I’d have to go for Herbert Blomstedt conducting Bruckner on 29 November. He’s one of the few conductors whom everybody loves and reveres – a true legend, whose reputation continues to spiral upwards in his 90s. And conducting the heavenly music of Bruckner – it will be a truly great occasion.

Kabalevsky Cello Concerto No. 2

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Video

Cellist Steven Isserlis plays Kabalevsky encore