Cellist Steven Isserlis prefers the unconventional
To gauge the stature of cellist Steven Isserlis, look no further than his latest release, “Lieux Retrouves” (“Rediscovered Places”), named recording of the month in September by Gramophone magazine.
The respected British cellist teamed with fellow countryman Thomas Ades for a thematic album incorporating a 2009 suite by the composer-pianist and works by four diverse musical figures who have influenced Ades: Faure, Janacek, Kurtag and Liszt.
It’s an unconventional, adventurous and thoughtful compilation — qualities that not coincidentally also describe Isserlis, 54, who returns for a recital Friday as part of the University of Chicago Presents series.
“It was great fun to put together a program of works that I knew had influenced him [Ades] and then present it to him and see his reaction,” Isserlis said. “His cello piece, ‘Lieux Retrouves,’ is astonishing — utterly different from anything else ever written and yet not trying self-consciously to be original.”
Like his previous appearance during the 2006-07 season, the cellist will be joined by pianist Kirill Gerstein, who presented a solo concert in May at Symphony Center.
“I look for various things in recital partners,” Isserlis said of Gerstein, who won the Gilmore Artist Award in 2010 (given to a promising concert pianist). “But
most important is that
we’re somehow on the
wavelength both musically and personally, and
that we have fun
“I’ve played quite a bit with Kirill since he was quite young. Annoyingly, he always seems to know so much more than I do on almost every subject under the sun, but nevertheless, I enjoy his company.”
Their last concert at the University of Chicago was memorable in part for a near disaster: A hanging microphone came crashing down midway through the performance.
“Luckily, it landed on the lid of the piano, thus just avoiding my cello and me, for that matter, though that wouldn’t have mattered so much,” Isserlis said.
Other than that recital, Isserlis had not appeared in Chicago since the late 1980s and early ’90s, when he was a soloist with the Chicago Symphony. In all, he gives as many as 100 performances a year, including several trips to the United States.
“The trouble is that I often find it hard to say no, and, anyway, I enjoy the attention!” he said. “But one does have to be careful. If I ever found myself getting careless about concerts or the preparation beforehand, I’d have to start cutting down immediately.”
Isserlis and Gerstein will begin their program with two pieces off the “Lieux Retrouves” CD — Liszt’s “Romance Oubliee” and “Die Zelle in Nonnenwerth.” The rest of the lineup consists of Brahms’ Cello Sonata in E Minor, Op. 38, No. 1, and Cello Sonata in F Major, Op. 99, No. 2, as well as works by Bartok and Busoni.
“I think the idea [for this program] came from Kirill saying he really wanted to play the Brahms F Major Sonata,” Isserlis said. “Then I had to try to think of an interesting program somehow connected to, but also contrasted with, the sonata.”
Pointing to declining ticket sales and aging audiences, some observers argue that classical music is in a retreat. But the ever-optimistic Isserlis doesn’t buy it.
“It’s true that a lot of classical-music organizations are in financial trouble,” he said, “but I think that has far more to do with the way classical music has been presented [and attacked] for many years than with the actual need for great music, which is as strong as ever.”
Kyle MacMillan is a locally based free-lance writer.