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

In concert – Benjamin Baker and Daniel Lebhardt @ St James’s Piccadilly, London


Benjamin Baker (violin, above), Daniel Lebhardt (piano), St James’s Church, Piccadilly, 18 January 2016

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

Britten – Suite for violin and piano, Op.6 (1934-35)

Elgar – Sonata for violin and piano in E minor, Op.82 (1918)

Violinist Benjamin Baker and pianist Daniel Lebhardt are both promising musicians in their twenties, and here they performed an attractive pairing of the young Britten and the ageing Elgar. This was part of the Richard Carne Trust Series, a lunchtime concert given in the generously lit, spacious surrounds of St James’s Piccadilly, a fine Christopher Wren church.

Britten was a relatively serious child, and although the Suite for violin and piano is an early work, completed in his early twenties, it has the mark of a composer already sure of himself in form, melody and writing for the violin. Britten still has fun through a number of dance forms, though, and after a bold as brass introduction Baker and Lebhardt strode confidently through a March, well balanced and intuitively finding the flexibility in Britten’s rhythms.

This togetherness was even more apparent in a dramatic Moto perpetuo, a nervy piece of writing, but this fraught mood dissipated in the bell-like chords with which Lebhardt began the Lullaby. Finally the Waltz, a brazen but very enjoyable affair where the performers could perhaps have been more exuberant, but where they took some very tasteful liberties with the rhythm, as Britten instructs in the score.

Elgar’s Violin Sonata was a different story, darkly passionate in the intial outpouring of feeling in its first movement but contrasted with a ghostly quieter section that even on a cold January lunchtime sent a shiver down the spine. Elgar is fiercely lyrical in the outer movements of this work, and Baker did well to project this over an equally active piano part. The two found the grace of the Romance, where it felt as though they were dancers in hold, charming with slow steps but occasionally drifting apart.

Elgar’s determination returned in the finale, the tune consistently putting its head above that of the piano and achieving a well-won victory by the end. The two showed great understanding of the older man’s music, a fine interpretation that reminded me this piece was one of Nigel Kennedy’s earliest recordings. Baker and Lebhardt, then, have followed in illustrious footsteps!

Under the Surface at the Proms – British composers

Prom 26, 5 August 2015 – BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Tadaaki Otaka at the Royal Albert Hall


Ailish Tynan and Tadaaki Otaka performing Grace Williams’ Fairest of Stars at the BBC Proms Picture (c) Chris Christodoulou

Only the BBC Proms could come up with a night like this, a programme of partially or wholly neglected British music flattering not only the composers but the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, who had clearly invested a lot of rehearsal time.

Their greatest triumph came last, the Symphony no.2 of William Walton, written in 1957 but receiving only its fourth ever performance at the festival and its first since 1996. Walton’s First gets all the glory in his symphonic output, and understandably so – it’s bold, has strength of character, some terrific tunes and bright orchestral colours. Yet the Second deserves far more, as conductor Tadaaki Otaka showed us here:

Although it is a much more anxious and questioning piece it is tightly structured, its melodies unusual but somehow memorable too. The first movement tune has a steep incline to its melody but remains in the head, and certainly did so after this performance, beautifully coloured as it was with orchestral piano and glockenspiel. The second movement had softer colours but was equally worrisome, while Walton, thumbing his nose at ‘serial’ composers who had opted out of tonality, uses all twelve tones in his theme for the finale, in a tuneful sense. Here they were hammered home in orchestral unison, and the climax of the work was hugely impressive.

Earlier we heard some better known works from Walton – a bracing Spitfire Prelude and Fugue – and Elgar, his first orchestral work the Froissart Overture, played with a smile on its face.

Then it was over to do two very different Williams. Ralph Vaughan Williams completed his Concerto accademico, for violin and string orchestra, in 1925. It pays explicit homage to Bach but not in the way Stravinsky and co liked to do at the time. The composer saw this as a much more tuneful exercise, using folk-based material in the process. Listen here:

Despite a good performance the piece remains a curiosity. The first movement was dogged and rather foursquare, the music pressing on rather grimly, so it was left to the second movement to bring what felt like more genuine emotion, bringing to mind the slow movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto no.1 as it did so. Chloë Hanslip, the excellent soloist, was rich in tone both here and in the finale, which reverted to brisk music but in a much more accessible way this time, with a soft-hearted closing section. This was, for me, not the composer’s best.

Grace Williams, a Welsh composer who was a pupil of Vaughan Williams, is not heard much in the concert hall – but Fairest of Stars, for soprano voice and orchestra, suggested she should be. Her writing for the voice was elevated by Ailish Tynan, who looked ready to burst into song as soon as she appeared on stage. Tynan’s voice was the perfect foil for this music, soaring above the clouds brought by the orchestra, and although the words were not always abundantly clear because of the thicker scoring, very much in the Richard Strauss vein, their sentiment was. The top ‘C’ Tynan hit before the end had to be heard to be believed, the crowning glory of the concert’s first half. Listen to the piece here:

The last few years have seen the Proms bring a number of major but neglected British works in from the cold – we have had music by Moeran, Alwyn, Havergal Brian and Howells to name just a few – and it is heartening to see them continuing that tradition. This night was a great success; let’s hope many more will follow.

There will be more Under the Surface features as the Proms progress, exploring lesser known pieces and composers at the festival

John Foxx – Redefining classical music?


John Foxx, the founding vocalist of Ultravox, is a prolific composer of electronic music, both instrumental and vocal. His recent endeavours include a solo release, London Overgrown, and an album Codex as part of the group Ghost Harmonic, recorded with classical violinist Diana Yukawa and frequent collaborator Benge (with whom he has also recorded as John Foxx and The Maths).

Because of his heritage and continued quest for making new music, Arcana spoke to him about his music, and in particular about the effect classical music has had on his life, in both positive and negative ways.

You seem to be in a very rich creative vein at the moment. Have you always been this productive, or are you finding that collaborations with others are bringing even more music out of you?

Collaboration is a fascinating thing – it’s so productive, but each time you have to figure out a new way to surf along with other people’s energies. You’ve both set yourself up – so then you have to put up or shut up. It puts you right on the spot and is very energising. Plus you both get to share the blame!

What does Diana Yukawa bring to your work with Benge that other classical violinists might not?

She enjoys improvising and enjoys being thrown in at the deep end with technological temporal disorientation devices. Not many classically trained musicians can handle that. She thrives on it and produces surprising results.

Diana has the sort of musical ability and agility that I find enviable. We’ve really only begun to glimpse her potential.

What is it about your relationship with Benge – and his studio – that inspires musical creativity?

It’s great fun – and always fascinating.

At first you think everything sort of half works but then you realise he’s managed to get beautifully rough sounds on sometimes beautifully rough equipment that excite you into the next stage without being able to resort to your own clichés.

When you listen back at home you realise you’ve been creatively misled into something you might have dismissed otherwise. And it all sounds very fine indeed.

I also love his take on mixing. The usual hierarchy gets dismantled and you hear sounds that don’t often get a just exposure. He’s completely fearless in that respect.

With London Overgrown, I first listened to it in bright early morning sunshine journeying into London, and the music and visuals seemed to go very well together. Is that how you see it?

Good – I think there’s a lot of English weather in the music, the sun through clouds and the sort of perspectives you might glimpse calmly gliding through overgrown streets. It is both detached and tranquil. ‘Serene Velocity’ was the phrase that best seemed to describe it.

Was it a conscious move to write music with these projects that seems to be more treble rather than bass?

Well, with London Overgrown the instrument I used most was an old DX7, and that can produce beautifully complex upper frequencies, so I simply enjoyed and went along with that. Many of the pieces were improvised using 30 second delays, and delays so long create their own ecologies. It’s like gardening. You let things grow. In the end I had a city that was completely overgrown.

In the case of Ghost Harmonic we were obviously focussed on Diana’s violin, so that defines the frequencies to a large extent. The bass end was supplied by the big Moog and textural intervals supplied through the interplay between those two and the reverberation and delays. I like the violin’s range – it really is a singing instrument, a human voice extension. I’d like to use a cello against it next time – a marvellous creative groaning device.

Would you say either Codex or London Overgrown are classical in any way – their form or melodic contours, say?

Well, that’s such an interesting question, and to some extent it supplied the reason for this recording.  So I hope you’ll forgive me if I ride my wee hobby horse for a moment.

You see, I think the divisions between classical and other music are really illusory, but nevertheless interesting – ‘classical’ is a sort of ossified form, historically where music began to be written down instead of being played, personal and constantly evolving, as it was before the evolution of the orchestra –  and this is what created all the problems.

You see, orchestras couldn’t improvise any longer because they’d become too big. They have marvellous, unlimited harmonic and melodic potential but they’re like an ocean liner to a canoe – they can’t manoeuvre instinctively.

Orchestras are also very hierarchical and bureaucratic – all instructions have to be written down and adhered to in order to operate effectively, otherwise chaos would ensue because of the sheer number of participants involved.

That’s when orchestral players became more focussed on obedience training than improvisation skills and agility, simply because it was necessary for the successful operation of the music.

Musicians unwittingly became a reproductive device. The conductor assumed the interpretive role, but even he couldn’t fundamentally alter the score. Writing things down also fixes them, it tends to inhibit or prevent any further development, so that’s another reason the whole thing became so inflexible.

I think it’s no accident that the orchestra evolved during the industrial revolution, where factory and bureaucratic systems also had to evolve, to deal with the massive scale of industry and populations.

They are really a sort of model of idealised, organisational harmony created through bureaucracy – powerful, monolithic and effective – but there’s always a price and the price paid here is the sacrifice of individual freedom of interpretation and expression. By logical increments you find we have unwittingly locked ourselves into a sort of bureaucratic form – bureaucratic music.

With Diana we were attempting to steal the fire of some of that marvellous technical skill that classical music demands – and set it free among the fields of infinite sonic possibilities that a modern recording studio can offer. You can change time relationships, even reverse them, and manipulate sequences, perceptual spaces, perspectives, harmonies and textures. You can focus down like a microscope, or out into landscapes and even create occurrences that behave like weather systems.

Of course the act of recording also captures, alters and defines a sort of music, just as written music does, but in very different ways – so there’s still a price for every gain.

We began by simply wanting to see what would happen if we mixed the most intriguing possibilities of both genres, without prejudice. Along the way we also began to realise it might offer a way out of this impasse that so called ‘classical music’ seems to have unwittingly entered.

Can you remember your first encounters with classical music?

Yes – first hearing of Nimrod by Elgar (from the Enigma Variations) and realising the power and subtlety of an orchestra.

I heard older music in church – the sung Latin mass, which was marvellous to hear and that oceanic feeling of dissolving into something greater than yourself. I also begun to understand how chants evolved by harmonising with your own delayed reflections from the architecture – architectural music as opposed to bureaucratic music.

When I hear music by Thomas Tallis I hear the astounding beauty of those interwoven voices, then realising the evolutionary connections between chants and orchestras and architecture.

Then the next thing that really impressed me was Satie‘s piano music. I heard someone play the Gymnopédies one afternoon in the old lecture room at art school.

I can still picture the instant – early summer, big open doors, the view down the marvellous avenue of trees at Avenham, and that beautiful elegant music. It is perfect minimalism, with poise and tranquillity, like distilled civilisation in a few notes and a sound. I was transfixed. it seemed to alter everything. I’ve loved piano ever since. It really is my favourite sound in the world apart from a blackbird’s song.

You said in an interview with me a while back how you liked what John Cage did, and the theory that music is organised noise. Is that how you see it – and is that why the noise of Benge’s studio, for instance, assumes the importance it does?

Yes to both. Understanding that music is organised noise was a great liberation. It enables you to understand and encompass lots of other sources of music from traffic to industrial noise to feedback and other accidental by-products such as tape hiss and glitches etc. Inherent imperfections become part of the landscape, so the landscape immediately becomes bigger and more textured, as well as more fun.

Would you ever consider writing for orchestral forces, or what are seen as more ‘classical’ forces, such as an electronic string quartet?

Maybe – but I’d need to have the motivation – usually some aspect of music that seems to need reconciling or some neglected possibility that intrigues enough to do the work. In the case of Ghost Harmonic, that was supplied by attempting to reconcile classical playing abilities with modern recording and improvisation.

What does classical music mean to you?

Something wonderful that became confined by its own form.

It means great possibilities still unrealised – what might happen if you facilitated a real interplay between the massive harmonic possibilities of orchestras and the full potential of a modern recording studio?

At present the classical world sees recording simply as a means of recording a single performance – any other manipulations are seen as inauthentic. There’s no attempt to access the massive compositional possibilities of modern recording. What a waste!

What are you listening to at the moment, and what piece of classical or modern music would you recommend Arcana readers go out and find?

Ruben Garcia made some beautiful piano and reverberation improvisations on a record called A Roomful of Easels. I often play some of these pieces at home.

There’s one David Darling recording, by the instigator of ECM Records Manfred Eicher, called Cello – improvisations against long delays. It’s a specific mood and poise, perfectly held, beautifully recorded and composed. Sadly, I didn’t much like his other recordings – except perhaps Dark Wood. It seems he needed the austerity of vision enforced by Eicher.

And Satie, always. He’s really the Marcel Duchamp of modern music – the point it all began, for me. His work embodies purity of intention and gorgeous simplicity with elusive intelligence. A benchmark.

London Overgrown is out now on Metamatic Records – and on the same label, the Ghost Harmonic album Codex is also available – their website can be viewed here