There are moments in Steven Isserlis’ new book, The Bach Cello Packes, where you wonder if lockdown got him down? In April 2020, housebound and with its busy executive schedule in tatters, the cellist inevitably revolves around solo music and especially Bach. The result – ‘a companion’ of these popular pieces – offers rich and penetrating insights along with some pretty purple prose.
Aphorisms stumble upon themselves, there are chats to Spinal Tap and PG Wodehouse, and the first chapters are almost manically ridiculous. Is it possible to Preludes two times? He thought at one point. “Certainly not? The spirit, it blows. Curious and inquisitive. . . ”
At the end of the book, I would introduce Isserlis as an overgrown puppy: the messy hair, the unorthodox energy, a certain need for charm. When we meet — in a cafe near his home in London, during a three-day break between a masterclass in Munich and a concert in Dubai — his air of quiet restraint is a little annoying.
And although Isserlis, 62, is still one of the most accomplished musicians of his generation, best known for his work with contemporary composers — including David Matthews, György Kurtág, and Thomas Adès — I am quickly struck by his repeated references to self-confidence. . He may describe the Bach suites as “the greatest music ever written”, but he does not intend to perform them in public again, for fear of forgetting the score.
‘I did two [of the suites] for 25 people at [London’s] Fidelio Cafe just after the first restriction, because that was the only thing to do, ”says Isserlis. ‘But in general I’m not going to do it again because it makes me too nervous because I love them so much.
‘I have to keep quiet about it,’ he continues, ‘because I’ve been getting messages for the past few weeks from two of my closest cello friends who say,’ I hate you. I was never worried about the memory in the Bach suites, and now you thought the idea in me, I’m scared to death. ‘
He traces his fear of performing music from memory – as the cello suites in general – to a decay he encountered during a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Rococo variations as a young man. ‘The problem was that I had so few concerts in those days, that I did not have one again for three weeks, and people say if you had a car accident, you should drive home.
Isserlis was born into a family full of music. His older sisters, Annette and Rachel, are professional musicians; their parents were capable amateurs; and their paternal grandfather, Julius Isserlis, was a pianist in Russia – one of only 12 musicians selected by Lenin to tour the world in 1922. 1938
Although he was committed to a musical career from an early age, he struggled to find work for much of his twenties: ‘I was actually very depressed on my 30th birthday, I thought I was not going anywhere. And that year it started to change. In 1989 he premiered The protective veil, a work for cello and orchestra written for him by John Tavener, at the BBC Proms to a delightful reception. Almost overnight, Isserlis’ name was made.
I ask if his slow path to success has shaped him into a more contemplative musician. “Definitely. It helped me find my own voice and helped me have confidence in it, ”he says. Clearly, under Isserlis’ declared self-confidence is a firm determination, even unanimity, that brings us to the most compelling part of his book: a fascinating, controversial — some may even claim sanctification — that each of the six cello suites represents six different episodes in the life of Christ.
This instinct (“it’s not a theory, it’s a feeling”) was inspired in part by the pioneering work of German musicologist Helga Thoene, who performed Bach’s three Parties for solo violin as a representation of Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. Isserlis reminds his readers of sacred instrumental music – like that of Biber Rosary Sonatas, written in the late 1670s – was not uncommon when the suites themselves were put together between 1717 and 1723.
It is also rooted in ideas presented to him decades ago by Jane Cowan, one of his early teachers, who described the extremely gloomy fifth suite as the crucifixion and opening of the sixth suite like ringing bells, indicating the resurrection. ‘When I first started practicing [suite]”I thought it might be the birth,” says Isserlis, referring to the youthful innocence. “Then, of course, if three of the suites illustrate the life of Christ, why would not the other three be?”
In his version of the third suite, which he associates with both the ascension and the symbolism of the Holy Trinity, Isserlis describes the explanatory opening scale as’ a fairly consistent feature in Bach’s music, which in general seems to be a celebration. ‘is. He says he heard Mstislav Rostropovich perform the piece at Snape Maltings in 1974 in a concert that was postponed for several years because Rostropovich was banned from traveling from the USSR as punishment for his support of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
‘Suddenly Rostropovich floats on stage, sits down and immediately starts playing in this suite in the major. fff [extremely loudly]. We shot out of our skins! But it made a point. . . he writes.
Like the golden ratio – noted in everything from Beethoven to brassicas – the idea of a narrative subtext to Bach’s suites runs the risk of excluding all other explanations. ‘I have to declare that I firmly believe in it is religious connotations in the suites, ”writes Isserlis, but he is careful to leave his readers room for doubt.
“I remember once playing the fifth suite in Seattle and I imagined it as a representation of the crucifixion,” he says. “A man said afterwards, ‘That sounds like a BS to me.’
So what has Isserlis got off limits, since the Bach suites are now off limits? ‘I would like George Benjamin to write a piece for me, which I do not think he will do, because he feels he can not write for cello. . . but Kurtág, who is now 95, I called this morning and he asked me to call back after 22:00 tonight to discuss a new piece he wants to write for me. It is clear that new music – perhaps in part because it is fresh and unloaded by the weight of the historical precedent – still has a great appeal.
Isserlis directs his anger at the “overconfident famous musicians” who perform the same performance night after night. “I hate that. I just hate it, ”he says. ‘Look at all my heroes — Casals, Shafran, a great Russian cellist, Horovitz — all these people are paralyzed with nerves and doubt, and so one must be.
‘The Bach Cello Suites: A Companion’ is published by Faber