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

On record: Renaud Capuçon plays the Bruch Violin Concerto no.1 and Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole

Featured recording: Lalo: Symphonie espagnole; Bruch: Violin Concerto no.1; Sarasate – Renaud Capuçon, Paavo Jarvi and the Orchestre de Paris (Erato)
lalo-capuconRenaud Capuçon, Paavo Jarvi and the Orchestre de Paris play arguably the best-loved work for violin and orchestra, Bruch‘s Violin Concerto no.1, and pair it with the sultry Symphonie Espagnole of Lalo. A virtuoso work by Pablo Sarasate makes up the trio.

What’s the music like?

These are two perennials of the repertoire for violin and orchestra, bursting with tunes. Bruch’s Violin Concerto no.1, the first of three he wrote, was dedicated to the Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim, as was Brahms’ Violin Concerto. This is the work by which Bruch is best known.

It is small wonder really, for it is highly romantic, setting the ideal balance between violin and orchestra, who share some wonderful tunes. The soft hearted Adagio brings a tear to the eye, while the outer movements have an invigorating energy.

Meanwhile the Lalo Symphonie Espagnole, a five-movement piece that is essentially an extended concerto, brings some much-needed warmth. Lalo is a composer who has fallen out of fashion in the last few years, so it is good to have a new recording of this piece, as it has a few spiky and very catchy themes. If you like Bizet’s Carmen you will recognise his use of the Habanera, while the final Rondo has one of those tunes you won’t be able to stop whistling for the rest of the day!

Complementing the two bigger pieces is Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs). Lalo dedicated the Symphonie espagnole to Sarasate, who was a virtuoso violinist himself – and who also incorporates some memorable tunes in this shorter piece.

Does it all work?

Yes. Renaud Capuçon shares a birthday with Lalo (January 27) and will in fact be 40 this year. He is in great musical health, choosing a program that is definitely youthful in its tuneful profile.

His tone is especially beautiful in the Bruch, initially brooding but with an underlying sunny picture that comes through. The sun is hotter in the Symphonie espagnole, the more successful of the two bigger pieces here, and the one where Capuçon expresses himself with more fire.

The orchestral accompaniment from Paavo Jarvi and the Orchestre de Paris is ideal – clean and fresh, as you would want in a new recording of the often-heard Bruch. The Lalo is the best rendition here though, like a fresh sunny day.

Is it recommended?

Yes. A classical antidote to the January grind!

Listen on Spotify

You can judge for yourself by hearing the album on Spotify here:

Under the surface – Shostakovich Cantatas


Composer: Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)

Nationality: Russian

What did he write? Shostakovich is best known for his output of symphonies (15) and string quartets (also 15) as well as popular concertos, two each, for piano, violin and cello. Yet a relatively large amount of his output remains unexplored, especially his vocal work.

What are the works on this new recording? There are three cantatas for chorus, published relatively late in Shostakovich’s career. The Execution of Stepan Razin is the best known of the three, and certainly the most accomplished, being also the closest we get to the real composer on this recording, as it was written ten years after the death of Stalin and was free of his decrees on musical direction. The Sun Shines on the Motherland and Song of the Forests are different, being works in praise of his authority and the forests of Russia, so they are by nature more celebratory. All three works are performed in this new recording from Warner Classics by the Estonian Concert Choir and National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Paavo Järvi, with soloists Alexei Tanovitski (bass) and Konstantin Andreyev (tenor).

Why aren’t these works more popular? That’s an easy one – in the case of The Sun Shines on the Motherland and Song of the Forests the texts are pro-Stalin and completely of their time. Even when recording, Järvi had to contend with demonstrations outside the Estonia Concert Hall in Tallinn, with people aghast at his idea of recording the original texts. Yet this recording is an extremely valuable illustration of music Shostakovich had to write against his will – and, if you look closely, how he managed to keep in a number of sardonic and witty references.

What is the music like? Despite the bombast of the two obviously pro-Stalin works, there is a curious emptiness to their celebrations, the sense of duty paid. Far more substantial and lasting in its impact, The Execution of Stepan Razin leaves a very strong impression of a hero in extreme adversity, cutting frequently to the bone emotionally – and is described by Paavo Järvi as ‘a critical work of the Soviet regime’.

After a bombastic opening the music remains powerfully driven, reaching a tremendous climax around 21’30”, which may be after the moment of execution itself – though unfortunately we do not have texts here.

The Sun Shines on the Motherland is immediately brighter in tone with the Narva Boys Choir, and leads to a positive but musically telegraphed high point. It is very well written and brilliantly performed, but has little substance emotionally other than empty celebration.

The Song of the Forests  begins in soft reverence but then there is a resonant solo from bass Konstantin Andreyev. The harmonies Shostakovich uses often lead to the same, deliberately hackneyed progression – effective but ultimately strangely wearing. The first part ends with a pure and peaceful low ‘C’ from the basses in the choir – peace at the end of the war, though not for the composer.

What’s the verdict? This is a fascinating and extremely valuable disc that adds another dimension to your collection if you know Shostakovich just through the orchestral works and string quartets. The ferocity of the singing is striking, especially from the choir, and the standard of performance is consistently high.

One serious drawback here is a lack of texts in the booklet, especially given the use of the original pro-Stalin material. Fortunately Shostakovich’s means of expression is direct enough to bring them straight off the page.


You can hear the Shostakovich cantatas here:

If this appeals, a very strong recommendation goes to this double album, as reissued by EMI, of Rachmaninov and Prokofiev masterpieces with André Previn (The Bells by the former and Alexander Nevsky by the latter), together with the sharply toned Ivan the Terrible in a pioneering version conducted by Riccardo Muti.