Endless pleasures of music for Steven
STEVEN Isserlis's passion for music stretches well beyond being one of the country's leading cellist – for example, he's also a Beatles enthusiast who lives on the iconic Abbey Road.
"I was very excited when the possibility to live here came up as a big Beatles fan," he says.
Steven, it seems really does live, sleep and breathe music.
Awarded the CBE in 1998, he has been at the forefront of British musical life for three decades. He has a distinctive style and appearance that adds to his charisma and which prompted The Guardian to say: "If you had to create a stereotype of an overwrought cellist, it would be Isserlis, with his mop of thick, curly hair, otherworldly gaze into the middle distance, and perennial state of rapture."
You can see him in full flow this week at De Montfort Hall, when he joins The Philharmonia Orchestra for the next concert in the 2012/13 season.
The concert will feature a piece very close to Steven's heart – American composer Ernst Bloch's From Jewish Life. It was Steven who commissioned the orchestration.
"They are such beautiful pieces and I wanted to play them more," he says. "I knew I would get more chances to perform them if I played them with an orchestra, so I commissioned Christopher Palmer to do the orchestrations."
From Jewish Life is so lovely that Steven once said of its third movement, Prayer, that it is "surely one of the most fervently beautiful pieces ever written for the cello".
"I still think that's true," he reiterates, "but I also said that the Haydn Cello Concert was the great classical concerto, so I'm bringing some very good pieces to Leicester."
Indeed, the centre piece of the De Montfort Hall concert will be the Haydn work.
Steven says: "It's gorgeous – one of the great classical pieces for cello. I haven't played it for a couple of years, which is odd, as it's usually the concerto I play most."
He's delighted to be working again with The Philharmonia, an orchestra he knows well.
"They are the British orchestra I play with the most, I would think," he says. "They are a very nice lot. We have done many things together but not Haydn before, so that's something new."
A champion of new and forgotten works, a powerful advocate for bringing the power of music to young people, an author, recording artist and performer, there clearly isn't enough hours in the day to get through all Steven's projects.
He has a new album out and four more waiting for release but chides himself that the great composers worked longer and harder.
"I could do with 36 hours a day but we don't have that do we?" he says. "But when I read about what Bach and Schubert achieved in their lives, then I'm just lazy. It's nothing what I try to do to what they achieved.
"Saying that, I have never done so many albums in such a short time and I love recording as, when it goes well, it's just as creative as a concert."
His newest album is In The Shadow of the War, taking the senseless conflict of the First World War as its theme.
The original spark for the album was The Loneliest Wilderness, a work which takes its title from a poem by Herbert Read, first published in 1919.
Steven says: "My friend Stephen Hough wrote it for me and I wanted to make an album around that. It occurred to me that we could do a whole album on the theme of the war. So we put on Ernest Bloch's Schelomo, which is a big tone poem for cello and orchestra which he wrote during the First World War. And then we added Frank Bridge's Oration, which has been a passion of mine for 25 years or more and which I think is an unsung masterpiece. It's an epic work, a great work. It was written many years after the First World War but is connected to it almost cinematically.
"I love and adore Elgar's Cello Concerto but this is just as great in a very different way. They are the two great post World War One British works."
Steven believes the pointless tragedy of the conflict still echoes down the decades as we reach (in 2014) the 100th anniversary of the start of the "war to end all wars".
He says: "The Second World War had to be fought but this was such a senseless waste of human life, that's what Frank Bridge, who was a pacifist, really felt and put into his work."
The album is the latest step on a musical journey that started almost from birth for Steven.
His immediate family – his composer grandfather, pianist mother, and two sisters who are both leading lights in the period instrument movement – provided a fertile environment that surrounded Steven.
"With my mother as a piano teacher, my father playing violin and my elder sister always going to play the viola, a cello was needed and that was that," he says.
"It was the obvious place to fit in and was the best instrument – no question."
And there's certainly been no regrets.
"Music gives me so much pleasure – when it goes well," he says. "It is endlessly fascinating."