Answering a recent interview question about when and why he’d taken up the cello, Steven Isserlis made an important discovery: He’d been playing the instrument for 50 years, having started in October 1965, when he was 6.
His reaction? Typical Brit. “Half a century, which is a horrible thought,” he deadpanned, speaking from his London home. Or rather, near his home — his burglar alarm had gone off late in the evening and he’d been forced to go out while the matter was sorted out.
Isserlis, who begins a two-concert survey of Beethoven’s music for cello and piano with fortepianist Robert Levin at the Gardner Museum with a sold-out recital on Sunday, was similarly self-deprecating when talking about the depth of his connection to an instrument that had been chosen for him because all the other major instruments were taken by other family members.
“The thing is, I’m terrible with anything else to do with my hands,” he said. “My writing is awful, I can’t draw, I always drop things all over. Nothing else feels natural for my hands except for playing the cello, and then I can’t understand why everyone can’t play the cello. Everything else feels ghastly.”
Isserlis’s deflection of his own self-importance is among the pleasures of conversing with him, as is his tendency to make certain that repertoire and stylistic choices seem natural rather than a matter of momentous consequence. Take the issue of period instruments, which other cellists trained in modern style have made a big deal of embracing recently.
Isserlis, however, started out playing on gut strings, even before beginning his studies with Jane Cowan, an important British cello teacher. “It wasn’t all that unusual in those days, here at any rate,” he said. He plays the majority of his repertoire on gut not principally because of any claim to authenticity, but simply because it seems more naturally expressive to him.
That’s the case even with 20th-century repertoire well outside the early-music province. Once, when Isserlis was playing the first Shostakovich concerto, a critic asked an orchestra representative whether Isserlis was playing gut or steel strings. Isserlis told them to say that he was playing on steel strings.
“He gave me a wonderful review, saying how good the steel strings sounded,” Isserlis said. “And I never bothered to break it to him that I was actually playing gut strings.” (He did, however, opt for steel strings in his recent recordings of Shostakovich and Prokofiev concertos.)
He also plays down the common assumption that it’s harder to project sound on gut strings. The cello will always sound softer than other strings because of its range, he explained, but “I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how to play louder. And if you spend too much time worrying about that, you sort of come to the edge of the stage and shout, ‘To be or not to be.’ Where you can hear every word, but the meaning is gone.”
Interestingly, Isserlis was resistant to playing Beethoven when he was in his 20s, an age by which most musicians have come under the composer’s spell. Now, three decades on, “there’s no music I prefer to play. There’s an incredible strength to all his music — whether it’s light, like the variations, or whether it’s profound, like the last sonatas — it’s filled with the same incredible positive force.”
That’s especially the case when he plays the cycle with Levin — Isserlis calls the pairing “a good match, because we’re so different,” contrasting Levin’s vast store of academic knowledge with the cellist’s own “more intuitive approach.”
“I’ve asked Bob to leave me his brain in his will,” he joked.
But while Isserlis might not be an academic, he is a terrific writer, with copious liner notes, three “musical stories” with composer Anne Dudley, and two very funny music books for children to his credit. He has begun work on a new project, but refused to describe it except to say that it will be for young musicians rather than children.
You can’t say anything? a reporter pressed him.
“Hmmmmm,” said the cellist, delighted at the chance to torment his questioner. “I would love to but my lips suddenly closed up. Don’t know why.”
He cannot resist one last bit of deadpan humor. He and Levin played the Beethoven cycle at the Gardner 11 years ago, an occasion that Isserlis remembers partly because one of the concerts took place on his birthday. The violinist Joshua Bell, a friend, came to Boston to help him celebrate and was present at the concert. Afterward, Bell told Isserlis that he’d been thinking, “ ‘This is late Beethoven, but actually Steven is older than Beethoven was when he wrote these sonatas.’
“I thanked him profusely,” Isserlis continued in mock complaint. “I felt like an old man — and now I’m older still.”