Steven Isserlis: ‘One should be paralysed with nerves and self-doubt’

There are moments in Steven Isserlis’s new book, The Bach Cello Suites, where you wonder if lockdown got the better of him. In April 2020, housebound and with his busy performing schedule ripped to shreds, the cellist turned by necessity to solo music and, in particular, Bach. The result — “a companion” to these much-loved pieces — offers rich and penetrating insights alongside some fairly purple prose.

Aphorisms trip over themselves, there are chatty references to the likes of Spinal Tap and PG Wodehouse and the opening chapters are almost manically garrulous. “Might it be possible to play the Preludes twice?” he muses at one point. “Surely not? The mind, it boggleth. Curiouser and curiouser . . . ”

By the end of the book I’d come to picture Isserlis as an overgrown puppy: the tousled hair, the unfocused energy, a certain kind of needy charm. So when we meet — in a café near his London home, during a three-day pause between a masterclass in Munich and a concert in Dubai — his air of quiet restraint is a little unnerving.

And although Isserlis, at 62, remains one of the most accomplished musicians of his generation, known especially for his work with contemporary composers — David Matthews, György Kurtág and Thomas Adès among them — I am quickly struck by his repeated references to self-doubt. He may describe the Bach suites as “the greatest music ever written” but he has no intention of performing them in public again for fear of forgetting the score.

“I performed two [of the suites] for 25 people at [London’s] Fidelio Cafe just after the first lockdown, because that was the only thing to do,” Isserlis says. “But generally I’m not going to perform them again because they make me too nervous because I love them so much.

“I should shut up about it,” he continues, “because in the last few weeks I’ve had messages from two of my closest cello friends saying, ‘I hate you. I never used to worry about memory in the Bach suites and now you’ve put the idea in my mind, I’m terrified.’”

He traces his fear of performing music from memory — as the cello suites generally are — to a lapse he experienced during a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations as a young man. “The trouble was, in those days I had so few concerts, I didn’t have another one for three weeks, and people say when you’ve had a car accident, you must drive home.”

Isserlis was born into a family steeped in music. His older sisters, Annette and Rachel, are professional musicians; their parents were accomplished amateurs; and their paternal grandfather, Julius Isserlis, was a pianist in Russia — one of just 12 musicians selected by Lenin to tour the world in 1922. While abroad, Julius and his family defected and settled in Vienna until the Anschluss prompted another relocation to London in 1938.

Although committed to a musical career from an early age, Isserlis spent much of his twenties struggling to secure work: “I was actually very depressed on my 30th birthday, I thought I’m just not going anywhere. And that year it started to change.” In 1989, he premiered The Protecting Veil, a work for cello and orchestra that was written for him by John Tavener, at the BBC Proms to a rapturous reception. Almost overnight Isserlis’s name was made.

I ask if his slow route to success shaped him into a more contemplative musician. “Definitely. It helped me to find my own voice and helped me to have confidence in it,” he says. It’s clear that underneath Isserlis’s proclaimed self-doubt is a steely determination, even single-mindedness, which brings us to the most compelling section of his book: a fascinating, controversial — some might even say sacrilegious — assertion that each of the six cello suites represent six different episodes in the life of Christ.

With John Taverner (left) in 1997, who wrote the acclaimed work for cello and orchestra ‘The Protecting Veil’ for Isserlis © Richard Young/Shutterstock

This instinct (“it’s not a theory, it’s a feeling”) is in part inspired by the groundbreaking work of German musicologist Helga Thoene, who has interpreted Bach’s three Partitas for solo violin as representing Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. Isserlis reminds his readers that sacred instrumental music — such Biber’s Rosary Sonatas, written in the late 1670s — was not unheard of when the suites themselves were composed between 1717 and 1723.

It is also rooted in ideas that were put to him decades ago by Jane Cowan, one of his early teachers, who described the starkly sombre fifth suite as evoking the Crucifixion and the opening bars of the sixth suite as sounding like ringing bells, suggestive of the Resurrection. “Then when I started practising the first [suite], I thought, this could be the Nativity,” Isserlis says, alluding to — among other qualities — its youthful innocence. “Then, of course, if three of the suites are illustrating the life of Christ, why wouldn’t the other three be?”

In his account of the third suite, which he associates with both the Ascension and the symbolism of the Holy Trinity, Isserlis describes the declarative opening scale as “a fairly consistent feature in Bach’s music, generally seeming to denote celebration”. He recounts hearing Mstislav Rostropovich perform the piece at Snape Maltings in 1974 in a concert that had been postponed for several years because Rostropovich had been forbidden to travel from the USSR as punishment for his support for Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

“Suddenly, Rostropovich swept on to the stage, sat down and immediately launched into this C major suite, played fff [extremely loudly]. We shot out of our skins! But it made a point . . . ” he writes.

Rather like the golden ratio — spotted in everything from Beethoven to brassicas — the idea of a narrative subtext to Bach’s suites is in danger of precluding all other explanations. “I have to declare that I firmly believe that there are religious connotations in the suites,” Isserlis writes, but he is careful to allow his readers some room for doubt.

“I remember once I played the fifth suite in Seattle and I introduced it as being, I thought, a representation of the Crucifixion,” he tells me. “A guy said afterwards: ‘Sounds like BS to me.’”

So, with the Bach suites now off-limits, what does Isserlis have in his sights? “I’d love George Benjamin to write a piece for me, which I don’t think he will, because he feels he can’t write for cello . . . but Kurtág, who is 95 now, I called him this morning and he asked me to call back tonight after 10pm to discuss a new piece he wants to write for me.” Clearly, new music — perhaps in part because it arrives fresh and unburdened by the weight of historical precedent — still holds a huge appeal.

Isserlis directs ire towards those “overconfident famous musicians” who trot out the same performance, night after night. “I hate that. I just hate it,” he says. “Look at all my heroes — Casals, Shafran, a great Russian cellist, Horovitz — all these people absolutely paralysed with nerves and self-doubt, and that’s how one should be.”

‘The Bach Cello Suites: A Companion’ is published by Faber

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