Steven Isserlis: When passionate dreams come true

At this year's Cheltenham Festival, the cellist Steven Isserlis will fulfil a 25-year-old ambition: to perform again in Bach's St Matthew Passion. Michael Church meets a musician who never does anything by halves

Thursday 28 June 2001 00:00

Steven Isserlis has a dream. Its seed was sown in 1975 when, at 17, he played the gamba arias of Bach's St Matthew Passion in York Minster. "Since then," he says, "I've loved this work more than any other in the world – it wrings you out, as nothing else does. But because I don't normally play in orchestras, I've long known I won't play it again, unless I put it on myself."

Three years ago, the City of London Festival invited him to choose what he'd like to do. Bach's towering opus was his reply, but after months of work the plan was scuppered because there wasn't enough cash for the two choirs, two orchestras, soloists, conductor, plus rehearsal and concert venues that the project demanded.

Then he was invited to be performer-in-residence at the Cheltenham Festival. "And I said, without much hope, that my real dream was to do the Matthew Passion – and they said, 'OK, let's do it'." But for Isserlis, collaborator par excellence, it had to be with the right people. "I'd talked to Joshua Bell – I said I had this idea which would earn him absolutely no money and do his career no good at all, and it intrigued him. He agreed to lead the orchestra."

Racking his brains for a conductor who'd lift the work out of its normal mould, he hit on Colin Davis, and got a wistful fax in which Davis said how much he'd like to, but other commitments would probably prevent it. After a long silence, Isserlis tried emotional blackmail. "I said I didn't want to hurry him, but the next day was my birthday, and his acceptance would be the nicest possible present. I got a yes, provided I found him a professional chorus, whereas I'd planned to use a cheap amateur one." Davis waived his fee to help with the extra cost, and they booked the BBC Singers.

After this, Isserlis pulled in chamber musicians from the glittering ranks of those he'd played with round the world. Not knowing much about singers or singing, he invited tenor Mark Padmore – who starred last year in ENO's St John Passion – to be the Evangelist, and to choose his fellow soloists. Isserlis himself would play continuo: "No easy task. You have to be very quick off the mark – it's all about speech rhythms, not like having numbered bars. You've got to know exactly what's coming at every moment, and you've got to react."

This story comes out in an unstoppable rush, while the cellist simultaneously presides over more mundane business in his chaotic kitchen. Letters are brought for him to sign, then pictures arrive for him to approve. Thumbs down for the one that makes him look as if there's a bad smell under his nose, and for the one making him look ("aarrghh!") like his morose cello-rival, Julian Lloyd Webber. He likes the ones where all you see is his famously unkempt mop of hair (no, he'll never cut or comb it, and yes, it was washed only yesterday). As much a part of his persona as Billie Holiday's gardenia or Frank Sinatra's hat, this hair, says his wife, "is his only vanity".

I'm not so sure about that, but this distant descendant of Mendelssohn – whose first ambition was to be a footballer, his second to be a rabbi – is also a seriously driven man. I happened to be passing through customs at St Petersburg airport last year and witnessed his desperate anxiety as officials accused him of stealing his own Montagnana cello, and threatened to impound it. "I think they wanted a bribe, but if I'd offered one, and it had been the wrong thing to do, I could have been in big trouble."

This 1740 instrument is one of three he plays, the others being a Strad and a Guadagnini, but he doesn't own any of them, a fact which gnaws at him. "The Strad, which was once played by Emanuel Feuermann, is one of the world's great cellos. It's the one I dream aloud on – I can do virtually anything on it. But it's on loan from the Nippon Foundation, who will one day want it back. The Guadagnini has a wonderfully gentle quality – it's essentially an intimate instrument, and it isn't happy when I push it too hard. But though I own 45 per cent of it, I hardly ever get to play it because 55 per cent belongs to the cellist of the Endellion Quartet."

The Montagnana, he says, is much tougher, and great for Prokofiev and Shostakovich. "But at present I only own 18 per cent of that: the rest is owned by the bank and some shareholders, and I'm paying for it as and when I can afford to. I reckon I'll finally own it in 17 years' time. Meanwhile, as some people work for the tax-man, I'm working for the cello-man."

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And working very hard, too: between 80 and 100 concerts a year, more abroad than at home. The day after we speak, he's off on a 10-concert tour of Israel, where he'll spend every spare moment practising the stuff he'll be playing in his seven concerts at the Cheltenham Festival. How Jewish does he feel? A careful answer: "Jewish enough to do the St Matthew Passion, which is a very Jewish piece." How does he feel about Israel? "Er, not for publication." Pause. "But I still feel a pull, an attachment." As he does towards Russia, where he can trace his Jewish roots back to the 15th century. "I was sitting in a restaurant in Odessa in 1987, and a violinist was playing, and he sounded exactly like my father. Yet my father left Odessa when he was five – he must have picked up the tradition without realising it."

At the Wigmore Hall this autumn, Isserlis will stage some concerts dedicated to the work of the Russian composer Taneyev, and will also include a piece he's exhumed from his own grandfather's oeuvre. For Julius Isserlis was a celebrated composer and pianist, as well as being a student of Taneyev. The family musical strain has never been stronger than at present: both of Steven's sisters and both of his brothers-in-law will be playing in the orchestra at Cheltenham. "We move in the same world,' says Isserlis comfortably. "And we all have pretty similar outlooks on both music and on people."

His own outlook seems blissfully unbedevilled by uncertainty. He adores John Tavener's The Protecting Veil, the work he commissioned which has hit the Classic FM jackpot, and he's currently commissioning a new Tavener piece for himself, plus an artist whose name he won't divulge. He's a Beatles fan – the two hours he once spent with Paul McCartney still send him into ecstasies. And apart from some conventional contemporary enthusiasms – Adès, Woolrich – he's happier rooting about in dark corners of the 19th century than exploring the music of today. He's still waging retrospective war on Clara Schumann for her destruction of Robert's late cello Romances, and chasing forgotten works by his Austrian hero Carl Fruhling.

"What 20th-century novel can compare with Dickens? What film now can compare with Casablanca? But there's still nothing, in any art, that can produce the effect of the St Matthew Passion." His event won't have the polish required for a commercial recording, but he reckons that it will more than make up for that with its spirit. "And I don't think any concert-hall performance of this work could ever have the resonance it will have in Gloucester Cathedral – either literally or figuratively."

The Cheltenham Festival opens on 30 June; 'St Matthew Passion', Gloucester Cathedral, 6 July. Box office: 01242 227979

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