His famous curls might have silvered, but Steven Isserlis's enthusiasm remains undimmed. For all the sophistication of his playing, for all his honours and awards, "childlike" and "innocent" are two of the greatest qualities of the 49-year-old cellist. Among his heroes is Harpo Marx, "an angel fallen to earth", while his musical favourites include the Czech pigeon-lover, train fanatic and "difficult, lovable, healthy soul", Antonin Dvorak (whose cello concerto Isserlis will be performing on a short tour).
His description of the composer might equally apply to Isserlis. Precocious, bored by formal education and descended from a long line of musicians, he was just 14 when he first performed Dvorak's Cello Concerto. "I used to think it was so joyous," he says. "As I've got older, the more tragic it seems." The concerto was begun in America and completed during the homesick composer's summer break from his teaching post in New York, and became a memorial to his former pupil, first love and sister-in-law, Josefina Cermakova.
Though Isserlis will be happy to move his audience to tears when he plays the concerto with Paavo Järvi and the Philharmonia, in casual conversation he is eager to raise a laugh. Josefina's letters to Dvorak were, he says, "just appalling – they're all about money!" And in the second of his two books for children, Why Handel Waggled His Wig (Faber), the chapter on Dvorak was, he says, the most fun to write. Even the part about the concerto? "Yes. The cellist who gave the premiere in 1896, Leo Stern, only got the job after sending Dvorak two rare breeds of pigeon." *
Steven Isserlis performs Dvorak's Cello Concerto at Fairfield Hall, Croydon, on 29 January (020 8688 9291), Cheltenham Town Hall on 1 February (01242 227 979), Bedford Corn Exchange on 2 February (01234 269 519) and De Montfort Hall, Leicester, on 3 February (0116 233 3111)