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The English cellist Steven Isserlis is a grandson of the Russian pianist and composer Julius Isserlis—one of the first twelve musicians allowed to exit the Soviet Union to promote Russian culture. He studied with Jane Cowan (a pupil of Feuermann) then Richard Kapuscinski (pupil of Rose and Salmond) and quickly began a wide-ranging career as a soloist performing with most of the world’s leading ensembles, including period instrument groups.

Like many soloists Isserlis is also an enthusiastic chamber musician; he gives regular recitals with Melvyn Tan and in 1991 formed a trio with Joshua Bell and Olli Mustonen. He is a recipient of the Piatigorsky Artist Award and the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Instrumentalist of the Year Award and has given a number of high-profile premières, including works by Robert Saxton, Elizabeth Maconchy, Howard Blake and John Tavener. The latter’s work The Protecting Veil received its highly acclaimed première at the BBC Proms in 1989 and the subsequent recording brought both Tavener and Isserlis to greater prominence, winning a Gramophone Award. Among his many other recordings are the concertos by Elgar and Barber, Britten’s Cello Symphony and much chamber music, as well as numerous obscure and forgotten pieces—Isserlis is, by his own admission, always hungry for more music to be added to the cello’s repertoire.

Pedagogic interests are youth-centred for Isserlis, who has recorded a CD of cello music aimed at attracting children to the instrument and its repertoire. He gives children’s concerts, has co-written three narrated works with composer Anne Dudley, and has authored two books about the great composers: Why Beethoven Threw the Stew and Why Handel Waggled his Wig. In 1996 he succeeded Sándor Végh as artistic director of the International Musicians’ Seminar in Cornwall, where he gives masterclasses, perpetuating Végh’s typically Hungarian trait of directness in interpretation and communication, which Isserlis admires: ‘We cultivate the same approach […] We don’t talk about projection, career or success. We just try to look inside the music.’

Isserlis’s committed and accessible musicianship shines through in his recordings, the eclectic selection here demonstrating the breadth of his performance interests. His sound is within the modern mould, but with a flexibility that is refreshing. Unusually for a player whose repertoire is not just early music, he prefers gut strings for their relatively subtle, rounded tone. He uses a ‘classical’ bow where appropriate. His vibrato, whilst more or less continuous, is nonetheless applied sensitively and in context, while his fluid tone and bowing are notable and shown to great effect in the Bloch and Ravel arrangements selected (2010). These performances show Isserlis’s ability to create space in a musical texture, making them especially evocative. Conversely, his Boccherini Sonata No. 2 (1988) is more tightly argued with a playful sense of fun, something found equally in the W.H. Squire Danse rustique on his Children’s Cello album (2005). His beautiful cantabile tone is heard in George Dyson’s little Melody from the same album: modest in scale and ambition, this is played soulfully and with absolute sincerity by Isserlis. This sincerity is transmitted equally in a distinguished Elgar Cello Concerto (1988), which is delicate where possible and sonorous where necessary and taken at a spacious but not ponderous pace, whilst Tavener’s The Protecting Veil (première recording, 1992) with its prominent solo cello part is played with drama and excellent characterisation. These recordings reveal a versatile and intelligent artist of great presence and sensitivity.

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Milsom (A–Z of String Players, Naxos 8.558081-84)

Albums featuring this artist are available for download from ClassicsOnline.com
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