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 – Werther Ensemble: British Piano Quartets at St John’s, Smith Square

werther-ensemble

Werther Ensemble (Jamie Campbell (violin), Nicholas Bootiman (viola), James Barralet (cello), Simon Callaghan (piano); St John’s Smith Square, London, 21 February 2016

Bliss Piano Quartet in A minor, Op. 5 (1915)

Howells Piano Quartet in A minor, Op. 21 (1916)

Alwyn Rhapsody (1938)

Walton Piano Quartet in D minor (1919)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The Werther Ensemble has proved itself adept across the broad spectrum of nineteenth- and twentieth-century chamber music, and this enterprising programme demonstrated the range of response by British composers to that most often overlooked of media – the piano quartet.

Admittedly it got off to a lukewarm start with the Piano Quartet by Sir Arthur Bliss. True the first movement began impressively, but its ensuing contrast of romantic ardour with a gauche folksiness the composer was soon to jettison never quite worked, then the central Intermezzo was simply too short and lightweight to hold a balance between its predecessor and the lively finale with its dutiful recall of the work’s opening theme towards the close. Understandable if Bliss should have left this piece to its fate as he headed off in a radically different direction.

A year younger, Howells completed his own Piano Quartet at much the same time, yet here there could be no doubt as to its consistency of musical idiom with those other chamber works from this composer’s early maturity. The opening movement unfolded with no mean deliberation, its main ideas emerging gradually and only rarely asserting themselves against a constantly shifting harmonic context.

For all that it conveyed a purposeful momentum as the Werther was mindful to contrast with the lingering eloquence of the central Lento – building in stages towards a soulful climax tinged with regret. After this, the finale may have surprised with its rhythmic incisiveness and often headlong progress, yet the affirmative outcome was audibly in keeping with the underlying trajectory of this ‘dark horse’ among works of its kind.

After the interval, a welcome revival for the Rhapsody as was the first of Alwyn’s two contributions to the medium. This packed a wealth of incident into its modest timespan of a little more than nine minutes. The tensile initial idea proved dominant while being flexible enough to accommodate understated material in a loosely palindromic structure that brought a satisfying completion. The Werther was more than equal to the technical challenges of a piece as reminded one some of Alwyn’s most distinctive music is to be found in his chamber output.

The programme concluded with the Piano Quartet by which the teenage Walton gave notice of his protean talent. Although revised in the 1920s and again in the 1950s, this is very much a young composer’s music – one steeped in recent scores by Ravel and Stravinsky that are put to productive use over its thematically interrelated four movements.

The Werther duly sustained its half-hour span with conviction to spare – whether in its trenchant response to the bracing scherzo, the ambivalent shadows that inform the Andante’s fitful progress, or the ingenuity by which the opening movement links hands with the finale in an impressive show of technical resource and cumulative energy – especially during the latter’s heady central passage, a sure pointer towards the composer’s musical preoccupations a decade and more hence.

An impressive conclusion, then, to a well-conceived and finely executed recital, in spite of the occasional intonational flaw. Apparently this had to be postponed from last year because of illness among the ensemble – in which case, its rescheduling was justified in every respect.