Steven Isserlis – revisiting Elgar and discovering Walton

steven-isserlisCellist Steven Isserlis is one of Britain’s best-loved classical artists – loved for his highly respected interpretations of the cello repertoire, but also for his open, honest and enthusiastic approach to classical music.

Isserlis, an author of books introducing children to the likes of Beethoven, Handel and Schumann, generously donated time to talk to Arcana about the roots of his love of the cello, his new disc of Cello Concertos by Elgar and Walton and his new work as an author.

Can you remember your first encounters with classical music?

I can’t remember a time without music! From the time I remember anything, my sisters were already learning instruments, and I used to go to sleep at night to the sound of my father practising the violin and my mother the piano.

How did you develop a love of the cello?

My sister Rachel played the violin, and my elder sister Annette was always going to play the viola. So a cellist was needed – that would be me. So my parents took me to a local teacher, and – after a false start at the age of four or five – I began lessons from the age of six. I think my love for the cello developed as I came to realise that if I played OK I could be the centre of attention!

What was it like returning to record Elgar’s Cello Concerto? Was it invigorating in the company of someone (the conductor Paavo Järvi) who may not have encountered the composer’s music so much?

Well, I’ve played the Elgar so many times over the 25+ years since I first recorded it that it seemed a good idea to record it again. It’s true that Paavo needed a bit more persuading than he did for our Prokofiev / Shostakovich disc, but not much more; he’s always up for a challenge.

Was it your aim to bring out a little more of the humour in the last movement of the Elgar, given the relative darkness around it? It also feels a little quicker than your first recording of the concerto.

It was not a conscious aim – I really didn’t think about (or listen to) the earlier recording. But yes, there is humour in parts of the last movement – which for me throw the tragedy into even sharper relief.

This is the first time you have recorded the Walton (I think!) I’m assuming you knew it very well before, but what effect did it have on you in the recording process?

I’m not sure it had any particular effect on me ‘in the recording process’, but I’d been wanting to record it for some years, since I feel passionately about it. I always name the Schumann, Dvorak, Elgar and Walton concertos as the four very greatest cello concertos (though I’d be bereft without those of Haydn, C.P.E. Bach, Boccherini, Saint-Saëns, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Dutilleux etc).

It feels like a very romantic piece, with sighing melodies and deeply felt thoughts. Given your booklet note for the release, is that how you would view it?

Definitely – romantic, poetic, impassioned, magical.

The Gustav and Imogen Holst pieces make fascinating complements. Do you think people are in neglect of just how adventurous Gustav’s music could be?

Perhaps. To my shame, I know very little of it. But I love Invocation, maybe especially so since I had something of a part in its rediscovery.

What do you remember of Imogen Holst as a person, and of the piece here? Her ‘Presto’ seems to me (a bit of wishful thinking I’m sure!) to depict birds chasing each other in the reeds at Aldeburgh.

I remember Imogen as a wonderfully quaint personality who was also sharp as a stainless steel razor! Wonderful. I’ve always thought of the Presto as depicting leaves flying around in a storm. Recently I was sent a note by the work’s dedicatee, Pamela Hind O’Malley, apparently written with Imogen’s approval, which describes it as ‘the scuttering of leaves in a high wind’. I like that word ‘scuttering’!

I understand you have just completed a book – are you able to tell us more about it at this stage?

It’s advice for young musicians – incorporating and updating Schumann’s book of the same name. I suppose that means that I’m now an old musician – groan…

Is it important for you to communicate to people, young and old, in a language that brings classical music to everybody?

Absolutely! And I enjoy playing for children, as well as writing for them – it can be tremendous fun.

Do you think classical music should do more to get the music beyond its ‘inner circle’, so to speak?

Well, yes – but not if that means distorting it, or promoting sugary crossover stuff. Classical music doesn’t need that!

You can hear extracts from the new Steven Isserlis disc of cello concertos by Elgar and Walton, released by Hyperion Records, here – including shorter pieces by Gustav Holst – his Invocation – and his daughter Imogen, a short suite for solo cello The Fall of the Leaf.

Meanwhile forthcoming concerts from the cellist are listed on his website

Under the surface – Lalo Piano Trios played by the Leonore Piano Trio (Hyperion)

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Composer: Édouard Lalo (1823-1892)

Nationality: French

What did he write? Lalo’s best-loved work is the Symphonie espagnole for violin and orchestra, but he actually wrote a fair amount of attractive orchestral music, such as a Symphony in G minor, a Cello Concerto and several other works for violin and orchestra that include a Violin Concerto and the Rapsodie norvegienne.

What are the works on this new recording? Lalo’s music is not too common these days, still less the chamber music. However there are three works for piano trio (the combination of violin, cello and piano) that have all been recorded for Hyperion by the Leonore Piano Trio. Nos.1 & 2 were written when the composer was in his mid to late twenties, while no.3 is a much later work, completed in 1880.

What is the music like? In a word, passionate. French music expert Roger Nichols draws attention to the influence of Schumann and Mendelssohn in the excellent booklet note, but Lalo really does feel like he wears his heart on his sleeve more than those composers do. Big, bold statements such as that from the cello in the fourth movement of the Piano Trio no.1 are straight from the heart, and the Leonore Trio convey the composer’s strong feelings throughout these excellent performances.

The first trio has a heroic feel, the music unashamedly romantic but often making its mark through memorable tunes. Lalo can on occasion be cheeky, and he does this especially in the Scherzo movements of each trio. The one in the last trio is a stormy affair, so powerful in fact that the composer orchestrated it four years later. The Leonore players do not hold back, powering forward in this turbulent but thrilling music, by far the loudest on the disc.

What’s the verdict? Brilliantly played, this disc makes an excellent case for a neglected part of Lalo’s output that finds the composer on very passionate form. With memorable melodies and rich, occasionally indulgent slow movements, this is invigorating music with a soft heart.

Give this a try if you like… Schumann, Mendelssohn, Franck

Listen

You can listen to excerpts from the disc at the Hyperion website

Meanwhile you can hear the Scherzo, the orchestrated movement from the Piano Trio no.3, as part of this excellent disc by Yan Pascal Tortelier and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, which contains some of Lalo’s most attractive works for violin and orchestra:

Under the surface – Mendelssohn Preludes and Fugues played by Howard Shelley (Hyperion)

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Composer: Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)

Nationality: German

What did he write? Schumann regarded Mendelssohn as the ‘Mozart of the nineteenth century’, as he was an uncommonly gifted child prodigy. A pianist as well as a composer, Mendelssohn is nonetheless better known for his orchestral and choral works. His five symphonies are best represented by the Scottish, the Italian and the Reformation (nos.3-5 respectively), while his most famous choral work – and one often performed by amateur choral groups – is the story of the Old Testament prophet Elijah.

The composer’s impressive body of chamber music is now better appreciated, headed by two Piano Trios and six published String Quartets.

What are the works on this new recording? Mendelssohn’s work for solo piano is often regarded as a set of attractive miniatures. This is doubtless due to the popularity of the Lieder ohne Worte (Songs Without Words), published in sets of six throughout the composer’s career. They are around three minutes each in length and carry attractive music and titles such as Venetian Gondola Song. On this recording, part four of a complete series of Mendelssohn piano music, Howard Shelley gives us the fifth book, a complement to the main work itself – the set of six Preludes and Fugues.

Mendelssohn was almost single-handedly responsible for the revival of Bach’s music in the nineteenth century, resurrecting the composer in a performance of the St Matthew Passion in Berlin in 1829, when Mendelssohn was still only 20. In the Preludes and Fugues he was paying a more obvious musical homage, using a form Bach had perfected for the keyboard.

What is the music like? When a composer writes a fugue it can sound as though they are showing off academically rather than communicating emotionally, but Mendelssohn brings to these works a strong sense of purpose and poise. His instinctive writing for the piano means the notes effectively play themselves, but they are not easy to play – which is where Howard Shelley comes in! Under his fingers the fugues really jump off the page when moving at pace, and the preludes each have strong personality.

Complementing them with Book 5 of the more romantic Songs without Words is a good move, and Shelley takes up the role of poet in the fanfare of the third piece or the lyrical Spring Song. Finally he adds the Andante cantabile e Presto agitato, an unpublished work of two halves, the first soft-hearted and the second bright and energetic.

What’s the verdict? This brilliantly played and recorded disc shows just how accomplished Mendelssohn’s writing for piano became, and with Howard Shelley completely mastering the technical demands the listener can appreciate the emotion of the music. The Preludes and Fugues are inspiring for their resilience, the Songs without Words for their poetic charm.

Give this a try if you like… Schubert, Chopin, J.S.Bach.

Listen

You can listen to excerpts from the disc at the Hyperion website

Meanwhile you can hear more of the composer’s Songs without Words on Spotify, in a complete set made by Daniel Barenboim:

On record: Stephen Hough plays Scriabin & Janáček: Sonatas & Poems

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Two of the giants of the piano from the twentieth century lock horns in Stephen Hough’s newest release for Hyperion – which actually brings together recordings made in 2011 and 2013. Scriabin and Janáček complement each other as they both explore rich variants of tonal writing – and in Scriabin’s case, leave tonality altogether.

What’s the music like?

Alexander Scriabin has an output almost entirely based around the piano, which became his primary means of expression. Within that, Scriabin seems to have loved the black keys and in particular F sharp, around which many of his works are centred. The Piano Sonata no.4 and Piano Sonata no.5 both reside in that key, although both make frequent and increasingly exotic bids for freedom, part of the mystical style the composer was working towards.

In Vers la Flamme (Towards the Flame) he reaches his goal, making a complete break with tonality in music that seems to be flying through the air – apt, really, as Scriabin believed in the concept of levitation. Here he conveys it in musical form.

By contrast the piano music of Leoš Janáček has a remote but incredibly intense form of intimacy that can at times be truly disconcerting. The music of Book I of On an Overgrown Path is fraught with anxiety but also has astonishing power, and it has eerie premonitions of death – the fate tragically befalling the composer’s daughter Olga, who lost her life to typhoid in 1903.

The Piano Sonata ‘1.X.1905, From the street’ has an equally tragic genesis, and would have been lost completely had the pianist Ludmila Tucková not copied two of its movements before Janáček lobbed them into the Vltava river. The date is that of the death of Frantisek Pavlík, a Moravian carpenter killed by Austrian forces for his support of a Czech-speaking university.

Does it all work?

Yes. Stephen Hough gets right inside the worlds of these two differing but complementary composers. He gives a frankly astonishing account of Scriabin’s Piano Sonata no.5, notable for its total technical command. This can also be applied to Vers la Flamme, where the fiendish trills reveal a work right on the edge.

Meanwhile the Janáček works thrive on the same levels of clarity, and the vivid picture painting in a piece such as The barn owl has not flown away!, from On an Overgrown Path Book I, lingers long in the memory. Meanwhile the latent anger in the Sonata is undimmed.

Is it recommended?

Without reservation. Stephen Hough is a superb pianist and musician, and plays these works with a command and clarity beyond the reach of most pianists.

Listen

You can get a preview of each track from this disc on the Hyperion website