Steven Isserlis on his children’s books and musical jokes

Cellist Steven Isserlis in performance.

British Cellist Steven Isserlis returns to play with the Philharmonia and conductor Philippe Herreweghe for our first London concert in 2022.

Ahead of our concert on Sunday 16 January, we asked him about his relationship to the orchestra and humour in Haydn’s music.


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.


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.


You’ve said that the Cello Concerto in C is full of “joyful virtuosity” and humour. How does Haydn bring humour to his music?

Haydn is one of the funniest of the great composers, I think; his music is full of unexpected twists and turns that make one smile or even laugh.

The C major Cello Concerto doesn’t have many jokes, as such, but the outer movements are so full of good humour and joy that if the audience isn’t beaming by the end, I haven’t done my job properly!


Which concerts from the forthcoming Philharmonia season would you recommend?

Hard to choose – but if I must, I’d go for three: being a Saint-Saëns devotee, I’d like to hear Alexandre Kantorow and the famous Santtu perform his music on 6 February;

Then, on 14 May, two of my greatest musician friends, Joshua Bell and Paavo Järvi, are collaborating in a spectacular programme.

Then, less than two weeks later, on 26 May, we are lucky enough to have the chance to witness Herbert Blomstedt in concert – that should be a deeply memorable occasion. I just hope I can get a ticket…

The Philharmonia and Steven Isserlis perform Haydn’s Cello Concerto, alongside music by Bach and Beethoven, on Sunday 16 January 2022 at 3pm at the Royal Festival Hall.