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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 13, No. 8 May 2008

A New Hero for the Cello

by Norman Lebrecht / May 11, 2008

A year after his death, the hole left by Mstislav Rostropovich at the heart of the cello shows no sign of healing. Two giants dominated the instrument throughout the 20th century and endowed it with moral purpose, to the point where the cello became the recognised voice of humanity.

The Catalan Pablo Casals resisted fascism to his last breath, refusing to revisit his homeland so long as General Franco was alive. The Russian, known to everyone as Slava, spoke out for human rights in the Soviet Union and, in exile, spoke out even louder. His death last April, mourned worldwide, left the cello leaderless.

Of the contenders, Yo-Yo Ma, famous for film scores and east-west fusions, is too busy being a record label cash register to take a stand on anything important. The exquisite French line of Fournier and Tortelier has dried up. None of a host of swaying blonde manes has revealed a new Jacqueline du Pré and none of Slava’s many pupils has spoken out on Darfur or climate change. The classical cello has gone into personality deficit. In a celebrity-driven culture, an art without a visible figurehead risks media oblivion.

I put this thought the other day to Steven Isserlis, the quirky, curly British cellist who countered that maybe the cello needs a different set of values these days, less lofty and heroic, more practical and domestic. Isserlis, 50 this year, is an engaging mix of English inhibition and artistic swagger, self-deprecation and acute self-awareness. The linchpin of a circle of soloists who work together wherever they can, he runs his own chamber music series at London’s Wigmore Hall and Frankfurt’s Alte Oper and is among the first five names out of the hat when an orchestra books the big cello concertos. Yet far from enjoying a jet-set lifestyle, he detests a system that keeps him in transit eight months of the year. At the same time, he can’t resist it. Unlike the giants, cellists nowadays have to do what they are told in a state of aggravated insecurity.

Isserlis, of Russian-Jewish descent, dropped out of one of London’s top fee-paying schools at 14, shuffled around on borrowed cellos in search of an identity and didn’t really get going until his 20s were almost gone, when a concerto he requested from John Tavener, languishing at the time in career doldrums, raised the rafters at the BBC Proms. ‘I never thought it would get a second performance,’ laughs the soloist.

The Protecting Veil relaunched Tavener as a post-religious guru and Isserlis as a mystic-looking interpreter in a head of ringlets that could have been recast from one of Bach’s wigs. Successful as he has become, the late-starter in him cannot turn down work. He carries his cello through nightmare airports onto flights, often late, where he pays two full economy fares and is treated like a quarantined animal. “British Airways are the worst,” he mutters. “Never an apology, no matter how awful they are.”

He led a campaign two years ago against UK security rules that banned instruments, but not laptops, from aircraft cabins. He earned a plug in the conductor’s speech in the Last Night of the Proms and the restraints were eased, without obvious harm to public safety. But it seemed a petty matter to raise at the most public moment in the musical calendar, trivial beside the great freedom causes of Slava and Casals. “Isn’t the solution to fly less?” I suggest to him. “Play at home more, save some ozone?”

“Can’t afford it,” he shrugs, in a flurry of steel-coloured curls. The mortgage on his 1740 Montagnaga is merged with the one on his home in West Hampstead, and he is still years from paying them off. “I’ve promised Pauline to cut back flying,” he sighs; from time to time he takes his wife on long-haul tours. His other cello is a Stradivarius on loan from the Nippon Music Foundation in Japan.

It is tougher to be a cellist these days – more grunge travel (Slava flew first-class), less respect, less opportunity for experiment: “I’m surprised when an orchestra asks what I’d like to play instead of saying Maestro X has put Schumann, Dvorak, Elgar or Shostakovich on the schedule,” says Isserlis. He tries to keep the warhorses fresh – no more than three outings this year for the Elgar (which he plays next week at the Royal Festival Hall) – but he cannot suppress the greater excitement of taking the Walton concerto to Beijing and Shanghai in the autumn. “I love that work, never get to do it enough.”

A Slava tribute box just arrived from Warner Classics reminds me of extraordinary concertos by Penderecki, Landowski, Schchedrin and Knaifel that lie unheard since his death, along with most of the 270 works he commissioned. “Slava was Superman,” says Isserlis, but the giant is gone and lesser mortals need to look to the goals within their grasp. “It’s not just about playing the cello,” he insists.

One of his favourite gigs is a children’s series that he runs at the 92nd Street Y in New York, a place where kids of all ages drop in to hear Isserlis and such chums as Joshua Bell and Jeremy Denk, teach, play and tell jokes. He has published two light-hearted lives of composers for children and his Wigmore Hall/Alte Oper series is a seasonal fulcrum of musical concentration. In Cornwall each summer, at Prussia Cove, he gives seminars on the values of friendship and conversation, the bedrock of chamber music.

“Every time I go to a boring classical concert I feel so angry,” he says. “It reinforces people’s clichéd and inaccurate view of what we do.”

So what’s the solution? “Play better. If you play better, people will listen better. If they listen, they will feel better.”

This is a different brand of idealism from the grand humanitarian gestures of Slava and Casals. It is an understanding that the world advances in small steps, by showing a child what a C major chord is made of and a young musician what it can express. Steven Isserlis may well be right: the age of giants is over. What lies ahead is something more educative, more intimate and, for our time, decidedly more appropriate.

Steven Isserlis appears with Les Violons du Roy, directed by Bernard Labadie, performing the two Haydn concerti, May 14th in Quebec City and May 15th in Montreal. www.violonsduroy.com

(c) La Scena Musicale