Stephen Hough interviews Steven Isserlis
Along with the Gramophone Proms Issue guest-editorship comes the opportunity to interview any fellow Proms star the guest-editor chooses. Stephen Hough selected his close friend and colleague, Steven Isserlis.
Interview? That sounds a lot like chamber music to me – the exchange of opinions and ideas. So to interview Steven Isserlis, with whom I’ve played more chamber music than anyone else, seemed like an opportunity to continue verbally in print our many happy musical hours in rehearsal and on stage. But actually our rehearsals can be extremely verbal – and not just in a musical way. We probably discuss our preferences for hotels, airline lounges and frequent-flyer programmes more than we do dots versus dashes in early Beethoven. We sometimes stop our rehearsals mid-flow to remind the other of something important – the low commission rate on a certain credit card, or that rude manager in N___. I remember one rehearsal, at a kind musician-lady’s apartment, when we were rehearsing a sonata. It was sounding pretty bad, but we were both tired and we knew it would be better on the night. So we fumbled and scratched along, barely together, laughing at the mistakes. This kind musician-lady, sitting in on the rehearsal, barely disguised her surprise (disbelief, horror, disgust) when, crashing on to a last chord, we declared that we’d rehearsed enough for that day. As we left her home, could we hear her on the telephone asking for a refund for our concert she was planning to attend the following day?
But this summer, although we will be appearing on the same stage and in the same concert, we will not playing together – and that has nothing to do with bad ensemble. We’re both taking part in a Proms concert (Prom 57 on August 28) playing works by Tchaikovsky – I’m playing the Concert Fantasy and he is playing the Rococo Variations. As I get to go first in this concert, I’ll be able to sneak out after the interval and hear his performance.
In fact, this is the first piece I heard V play (“V” and “PH” has been our way to avoid the confusion of multiple Stev(ph)ens over the years); it was with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in the late 1980s.
PH When did you first learn the Rococo Variations, V?
V I think I started to learn it when I was 15, although I seem to remember not being able to play it properly – not that I claim to be able to play it properly now!
PH Why? For a concert or just for repertoire?
V Just for repertoire.
PH Have you always played the original version?
V No, the original version was pretty much unknown at that point. But when, in the late 1970s, I heard a tape of the American cellist Paul Tobias playing it, I preferred it instantly. Later, Raphael Wallfisch also persuaded me that it was unconstitutional to play the Fitzenhagen version when the original version was now available.
PH Can you explain the history behind the two versions?
V Tchaikovsky wrote the piece for Fitzenhagen, a German cellist who lived in Moscow. Having written it, though, Tchaikovsky made one of his habitual long journeys outside Russia. When he returned, he found out (much to his annoyance, apparently) that Fitzenhagen had re-ordered the variations, cut out the final one, and arranged for his own version to be published by Tchaikovsky’s publishers. Despite his fury, Tchaikovsky was overcome by his usual lack of confidence (“they tell me that the variations are not good,” he told another cellist later) and allowed Fitzenhagen’s version to stand. It wasn’t until the 1940s that Daniil Shafran (my hero) gave the first performance of the original version; and even he soon retreated to the revised one. Raphael made the first recording (I think) of the original, and it has gradually caught on. There is still some resistance to it, however, which I find hard to understand: Fitzenhagen’s version makes nonsense of the shape by shoving the two cadenzas (the weakest parts of the work, by the way – I wonder if they could have been written by him?) into the same variation; moving the most substantial and tonally distant C major variation from its original position towards the end of the work, where it is obviously supposed to be, to near the beginning; and excising the charming eighth variation altogether – sacrilege!
PH It’s interesting that something similar happened with the Second Piano Concerto, although much more music was deleted when Siloti got his hands on the original score (over half the slow movement) than with Fitzenhagen. What are the challenges of the Rococo Variations – musically, cellistically?
V Some virtuoso music is supposed to sound difficult. These variations are a tribute to the rococo era, and to Tchaikovsky’s favourite composer, Mozart; therefore they are supposed to sound elegant, light and easy. That makes them twice as hard!
PH So where does the piece fit into the 19th-century development of the cello concerto?
V The two greatest cello concertos in the 19th century, the Schumann and the Dvořák, are both deeply personal statements, central to their composers’ musical output. These variations are more in the nature of a divertimento – but a charming one! Incidentally, at the time of his death, Tchaikovsky was planning to write a cello concerto (as well as a flute concerto) – so frustrating.
PH Which other works of his do you play?
V I adore the Souvenir de Florence in its sextet arrangement – what a wonderfully happy work! The Trio is also very beautiful, although it does go on for a long time – it’s the only piece I play with cuts. The other three works for cello and orchestra are all lovely – although Pezzo capriccioso is extremely hard, if one plays it with the correct tempo relationships. Apart from that, I’ve not played much – except for one memorable occasion in San Francisco when, having played the Britten Cello Symphony in the first half, I snuck into the back of the cello section to play in Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony under Rostropovich’s baton. I loved that!
PH What about your personal relationship to Tchaikovsky?
V Well, I’m proud to think that my grandfather, Julius Isserlis, studied composition with Tchaikovsky’s pupil-turned-mentor Sergei Taneyev. He must have known many stories about Tchaikovsky – but alas, I never heard any of them.
PH I remember you telling me when you were writing your second book, Why Handel Waggled His Wig, that you found the chapter on him difficult to write. Why is that?
V Well, it’s not very nice to say, but I found Tchaikovsky’s endless whining a bit irritating in the end. He had a hard life – but other composers had far worse times and didn’t snivel to anything like the same extent. Of course, he was very kind-hearted as well – and the music is so glorious that one can forgive him anything. In writing for children, there were also the two slightly sticky matters of his homosexuality and his horrific death from cholera. I put it all in, in the end – the books were supposed to be true histories, after all. The Japanese version actually cut the whole chapter – supposedly because of length, but I did wonder…
PH Tell me something about Anatoly Brandukov and his relationship to Tchaikovsky. Do we know much about him as a player? I read recently that he and the composer spent a lot of time socialising when they were both in Paris.
V Tchaikovsky’s Pezzo capriccioso, and two arrangements that he made for cello and orchestra of his own works, were written for Brandukov – not the Variations. But it was to Brandukov that Tchaikovsky entrusted the original manuscript of the Variations. As he had studied with Fitzenhagen, Brandukov had a great reputation as teacher and soloist.
PH And Rachmaninov’s Sonata was dedicated to him, of course. What about your grandfather’s association with the cellist?
V He was my grandfather’s boss at the Moscow Conservatoire; and they toured together, giving many performances of the Rachmaninov Sonata. Apparently, Brandukov annoyed my grandfather hugely by flirting with my grandmother – but since he was the boss, there wasn’t much my grandfather could do about it!
PH It seems then that things might have changed since his Paris days! What about this recording of him which has recently been unearthed?
V The only recording I’ve come across – part of the Arensky Trio with the composer making odd noises at the piano – is quite hard to hear; but one can tell that he was a very fine cellist with a very beautiful sound, who seems to have played perfectly in tune, not that usual on recordings of cellists of that era.
PH Moving on to the Proms – how many have you done so far?
V Quite a few – maybe eight?
PH Including your premiere of John Tavener’s The Protecting Veil which was a turning-point in your career and in its composer’s, and is an important milestone in the history of religious minimalism. Did you know straight away that this piece would have such an effect?
V No. I loved it, but thought that it would be an instant flop: it was so long and slow, and it was put into the second half of a vast programme with another premiere in the first half. So I was amazed and delighted that it made such an impact.
PH Do you still play it?
V Yes, I played it a couple of times last year. John has also written several works for me since – and, health permitting, is hopefully producing another short piece for me soon.
PH What about the Royal Albert Hall – do you approach playing there differently from other venues? It’s such an enormous space. Actually I find that intimate music and moments can often work better here than bigger gestures. Perhaps ironically Rococo is better suited to this acoustic than, say, the Dvořák Concerto?
V Perhaps. To be honest, playing there terrifies me! It is so vast. But it also has a very special atmosphere, especially with the Proms audience. But I don’t approach playing there that differently from other places. Of course, one has to play a little louder – but the Rococo Variations are still intimate and gentle; I can’t make them into an epic just because I’m playing in a large space.
PH What about future recording plans?
V The next recording I’m making is with the Tapiola Sinfonietta and my friend Gábor Takács, for BIS, of various arrangements made for me – the most substantial being a Debussy suite for cello and orchestra reconstructed/orchestrated/arranged by Sally Beamish. I think it’s a truly wonderful piece. After that, I’d love to record the Dvořák and Walton concertos, Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata and the Chopin Sonata, and eventually the Beethoven sonatas; those are all central works which I have yet to commit to disc. I’d also like to record several more unusual pieces, and some chamber music – and perhaps something specifically for children. It’s all under discussion…
PH I like asking composers which of their pieces is closest to them; what about your past recordings – which do you feel show you at your best?
V Well, of course the Bach Suites are at the centre of any cellist’s life, so I’m glad I recorded those. And Schumann is particularly central to my life, so I’m glad that I’ve recently made a second disc of his music – both of these are for Hyperion. And I don’t think the Brahms sonatas with a certain Mr Hough are bad, are they? Even though I’m completely overshadowed by the pianist of course (ha ha).
PH So what’s wrong with our Rachmaninov Sonata recording then? Moving swiftly along, are there any recordings you’d like to do again?
V Maybe the Haydn C major Concerto, because I’m not sure I communicated the joy I feel radiating from that piece (on the other hand, I think that the D major Concerto on the same disc can stand as it is). Maybe the Elgar – but that’s partly because I have a wonderful coupling in mind for it. I don’t know – I never listen to my own recordings, luckily, or I might want to re‑do everything!
PH You write a lot, I know. Are there any more books planned?
V Well, possibly some children’s fiction – possibly…But recently, I’ve had fun writing musical stories, which the composer Anne Dudley has set to music. I’m pleased with the way they’ve turned out – she is so talented! I enjoyed writing the books, but they took forever, especially the second one. Pauline, my wife, used to complain that she only ever saw the back of my head as I sat there reading or writing. Not a good idea, because she started complaining about what a mess my hair is.
PH That’s the advantage of hats, V, about which we have had many lively exchanges. Did you think that your insistence recently that I carry my wine-red fedora rather than wear it would be a less conspicuous sight?…
Now we’re both getting older, V, despite the physical evidence to the contrary. Are there any pieces or composers you like more now than you did 20 years ago?
V Well, I think I probably love music in general even more than I did 20 years ago. Pieces have certainly changed for me, though. For instance, the Dvořák Concerto: I have always adored it, but in the past I thought of it as essentially a celebratory work, whereas now I hear far more tragedy in it. Maybe that’s because I’m getting old; you’ll find the same, probably, when you reach your 50s. It’s not that far away, is it, PH?