Steven Isserlis: The cellist on emotion, playing a Stradivarius - and personal hygiene


Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Music is a wonderful bonding agent Growing up, my older sister played the piano and my middle sister played the violin, while my mother was a piano teacher, so naturally I wanted to play an instrument too; the cello. We used to play together at these horrible competitive festivals as a family. Now, though, music keeps the family close as we have the same interests and know the same people.

It's considered boring if you don't look tortured But getting over-emotional over music is like pouring ketchup over all your food. All the musicians I love look deep inside the music rather than thinking about their emotions during the performance. Like a good actor they should become what they are playing rather than thinking about the effect the performance will have on their career.

The greatest composers show us glimpses of a better world Playing music by composers such as Beethoven and Gabriel Fauré, my favourite, helps me be in touch with something higher than myself. No matter how miserable I am, if I'm playing a heightened concerto full of joy, I feel that joy.

Beethoven becomes more important as one gets older My friend the late, great John Tavener, came round to Beethoven late in his life. When he became ill, he suddenly understood what this man had suffered and he obsessed over late Beethoven. When I was in my twenties I didn't listen to it, but as I get older I listen more and more.

Intense times breed intense art That was certainly the case during the World Wars with composers such as Elgar and Ravel. I think that when bad things happen in one's life, it's very cathartic to pour it into music [Isserlis's wife, Pauline, died in 2011].

Stradivarius instruments have souls And there's an incredible difference from one instrument to another; the last Stradivarius I played was lighter and purer in tone, almost like a violin and more delicate to look at. The cello I use now is warmer. Both are expressing my voice, but it's like playing two different souls.

You can't just meet a woman and marry her You have to get to know her, build up a relationship, and it's the same with a Stradivarius; it takes a year to truly get to know an instrument. So a study a few years ago which found that blindfolded musicians couldn't tell from sound alone whether they were playing a vintage Stradivarius or a modern one is rubbish as they only had a second to familiarise themselves.

Bad hygiene gets my goat Particularly when you go to a public loo and someone leaves the cubicle and doesn't wash their hands afterwards; I hate it. My father was like that, and he got it from his father.

I'm not happy about the way politics is going in Europe Though at least our right-wing parties are unlike those in Hungary where they have some seriously right-wing, racist groups, and I don't think we're quite there yet. The financial crisis means people are scared of having their jobs taken by immigrants, which is reminiscent of the 1930s.

Victorian literature is my great love I love Wilkie Collins in particular. He's not as serious as Dickens but Armadale is a fabulous book, the most unputdownable I've ever read and I keep introducing people to it. I also love George Eliot and William Thackeray and Anthony Trollope. Somehow you can really get lost in Victorian literature.

Steven Isserlis, 55, is a cellist. He is currently on tour, and will play at the Wigmore Hall, London, on 4 July ( His recording of Beethoven's Cello Sonatas with Robert Levin is out now on Hyperion Records