Meet the Music Makers: Steven Isserlis

UChicago Presents: Though you widely perform music from the Baroque era through the present, it seems that period performance is a specialty of yours. What initially sparked your interest in historical performance?

Steven Isserlis: Well, I’m never happy with the term “authentic performance” (not that you used it, to be fair!), because all musicians are aiming for authenticity, in their differing ways; but yes, I’m always interested in hearing sounds close to those the composers would have heard themselves. I suppose that having a teacher – Jane Cowan – who taught many of the proponents of the original instrument movement in Britain, and also having two sisters who both play (viola and violin respectively) with many period-instrument orchestras sparked my particular interest. (although performing with early instruments probably accounts for less than 20% of my musical activity.)

UCP: On account of both your scholarship and instrumental faculties, you and Robert Levin are a particularly well-matched pair. How did this relationship between you and Mr. Levin come about?

SI: We were actually introduced by John Eliot Gardiner. We are a well-matched pair, though perhaps somewhat surprisingly: bob’s the great scholar, not I! I pick up my information from some reading, and from the knowledgeable people with whom I work; but I’m no academic. Bob, on the other hand, is a walking encyclopedia – and not just about classical music. I’ve asked him to leave me his brain in his will – I could do with it!

UCP: At one point in the liner notes, you mention a moment in the scherzo of Sonata No. 3 in A Minor that is challenging to perform on the modern piano, but is easily executed on the fortepiano of Beethoven’s time. Do you find many moments like these – i.e., elements of the music that are more idiomatic for period instruments than their modern counterparts – in performing Beethoven’s music?

SI: The moment to which I was referring is the repetition of the syncopated notes in the theme of the scherzo, called for by both Beethoven’s written-in fingerings, and by the performance notes on the sonatas by Czerny (who studied with Beethoven). I’m not sure the repetitions are exactly easy on the fortepiano – but more natural, anyway, because of the lightness of touch. There are many moments in the cycle which seem to me to be more suited to fortepiano than modern piano; but the really huge advantage pertains to balance. Bob can (and frequently does!) thunder away to his heart’s content without ever having to worry about drowning the cello. A modern pianist has to be inhibited by that worry. (though of course I also love to play the sonatas with modern piano.)

UCP: Beethoven is considered by many to be the father of the modern cello sonata. In your view, what was it about Beethoven’s approach to these works that make them so revolutionary?

SI: Well, the Third Sonata completely redefines the genre; it is the first (and unsurpassed, in that respect) entirely equal duo sonata for cello and piano (or piano and cello). The first two sonatas are not as equally distributed – but still, they show a wonderful understanding of the singing and dramatic possibilities of the cello, and of the combination of piano and cello.

UCP: Many of Beethoven’s works for cello are standard repertoire, but I suspect there’s an additional layer of insight and preparation required to execute such an undertaking as this, playing Beethoven’s complete catalogue for cello and piano. What sort of preparation goes into performing a cycle like this, beyond the purely technical aspects?

SI: We have performed the cycle very often now; but we still try to rethink the music each time. every marking in the score means something. Beethoven is perhaps the greatest of all composers at performance instructions – and they seem to convey something different every day.

UCP: Presenting cycles like these is a great feat for the artist(s) performing them, but it also offers great insight to audiences who are used to hearing a variety of composers on a single program. What do you hope audiences will take away from these all-Beethoven presentations?

SI: I hope they will take away some of the exultation that we feel performing this music. There is not a note in the cycle that both of us do not love passionately. The spirit of Beethoven, shining through his early works and reaching an apotheosis in his late works, is simply extraordinary, unique. It’s hard to describe the feeling of spiritual/emotional/physical triumph that one experiences from playing the fugue of the d major sonata – i.e., the final movement of the final sonata. One feels it every time; but somehow at the end of the cycle, one feels it even more intensely.

UCP: On a similar note, the world will be celebrating Beethoven’s 250th birthday in 2020. Though Beethoven is obviously no stranger to concert halls worldwide, milestones like this one present a chance to look deeper into the life the artist, their work, and the ongoing ramifications of their influence. In light of that, do you have any specific goals or aspirations for engaging with Beethoven’s music and legacy as we approach this landmark?

SI: I’m working on a few ideas, mostly at the moment centered around the Triple Concerto. But I do hope that Bob and I will do the sonata and variations again in that year. There is nothing that gives me more satisfaction and enjoyment that performing the cycle. it is uniquely uplifting.