Congratulations on winning the 2017 Limelight Orchestral Recording of the Year for your Haydn, CPE Bach and Boccherini disc on Hyperion. Can I ask you about the Haydn Cello Concertos first? You recorded them 27 years ago with Roger Norrington…

It can’t be as long ago as that, can it?

I’m afraid I have a feeling it was in 1990…

You’re depressing me!

I guess my question is how has your thinking about these two pieces changed in all that time?

My face has aged but I don’t notice it day to day. And it’s the same with interpretation, it changes, you don’t really notice it. I haven’t had any sudden “that was completely wrong” thoughts. One’s attitude changes, sort of. The difference now is that there’s no conductor. I’m directing, so it’s probably more chamber music-y this time.

Steven IsserlisCellist Steven Isserlis. Photo © Satoshi Aoyagi

You’ve recorded a few things again of late. With the Haydn, did somebody invite you to re-record them or was it you that had the desire to do it?

It was me having the desire. To be honest, I never really enjoyed the C Major. It did as well as any other of my BMG discs, which was nice, but it sounds as if I’m in a recording studio. I felt that when I heard it. I thought it sounded careful, and that piece is not careful music. It’s free and celebratory and I’m not sure I got that. I hope I got it better this time.

You directed this time as well as played solo. How does that change things for you?

As I say, it’s a little bit more like chamber music. Because it’s just me and them, the rehearsals are much more important than the performances in a way. In performances, it was more the leader directing, but in the recording sessions I’d ask for things constantly. I drive people crazy because I’m very pernickety about phrasing. It’s not so much that I was waving my arms around – though I may have done a bit of that [laughs] – but what we talked about in rehearsal, that was the real directing bit. Of course, you can’t do to the conductor because it’s rude. I do sometimes and conductors don’t like it very much, but of course Roger had very strong views on Haydn, which is why I invited him to do the recording. But this time, as I say, it’s a smaller orchestra and an orchestra I know better so it really did feel like a chamber music performance.

These two concertos feel like quite difference pieces. Obviously, they come from different times in Haydn’s career…

The C Major is a truly instrumental concerto. There are not many melodies in it that you would sing to yourself. There’s a lot of passagework making it very much a string player’s concerto. The D Major is much more operatic. When I checked it out I was not surprised that it was from the year he wrote his last opera. It’s the same with the first two Beethoven Cello Sonatas – the First is very instrumental, like a concerto for two instruments, and the Second is really like an opera to me.

When you say operatic, do you mean in terms of a lyrical line or do you mean in terms of telling a dramatic story? 

Both. It’s very much about melodies, but it’s also a dramatic thing. It’s so like a love song. But also, the two are written for two different cellists. Mozart talks about how he enjoyed writing arias for singers that would fit them like tailor-made clothes. Haydn too was very conscious of the strengths of his instrumentalists and you can feel that.

Steven IsserlisSteven Isserlis. Photo © Satoshi Aoyagi

Do you still marvel that we have these two pieces, given that they weren’t around until the second part of the 20th century? 

One was around, but people didn’t think it was by Haydn. And it’s usually played in a sort of bowdlerised version. But the C Major wasn’t around at all, and the one they thought was original Haydn – the little D Major – actually wasn’t. I don’t know how they thought it was – I played it once, it’s nothing like Haydn. But yeah, it’s great.

Do you think it’s possible that a work of that status could turn up again, or has that time now passed?

There are other cello concertos that are mentioned in the catalogue, but one starts to doubt that they existed for various reasons. There’s a piece by Fauré that may or may not have vanished. There’s a Brahms duo for cello and piano. There’s a Mendelssohn cello concerto, that’s a great loss, which seems to have got lost on a boat or a train. But of course, the Schumann Romances, that’s the greatest loss of all. He wrote them at the end of his life and they were around for 40 years but then Clara burned them. The only possibility really for a copy is in Australia.

Really? Why would that be?

Paul Blackman has written a book about a guy called Christian Reimers, who was Schumann’s cellist in Düsseldorf, who moved to England and then moved to Australia. He performed the Bach Suites with Schumann’s accompaniments, which are also lost in Australia, and he almost certainly had the Romances with him. It seems he was coming back to Europe and he died on the way. They probably just threw all his belongings overboard. They sound wonderful – you see Brahms and Schumann talking about them in letters at the time.

The CPE Bach Concerto you play on the disc as well is one of three. What made you pick that one?

It’s the most famous, and I think because Christopher Hogwood asked me to play it with him in Paris, so I learned it especially. It’s gorgeous, and funnily enough it seems to be the only cello concerto that Carlos Kleiber ever conducted. There’s a recording of him conducting it with a Telemann suite.

Would you ever have the other two in your sights?

Not at the moment, I might. But I’m trying to learn another Boccherini concerto because I love Boccherini so much.

You’ve reached the point in your career where you have the luxury of being able to go back and revisit repertoire, but are there pieces that you haven’t recorded before that are burning a hole?

I’d like to record the Dutilleux Concerto, which I’m just working on again. I am also recording Chopin and Schubert sonatas, which I’ve never recorded and a Kabalevsky sonata next year which is a fantastic piece. I’m also working on – and this is going to need sponsorship – recording the late works of my friend John Tavener. There’s lot of chamber music that I would to record that I haven’t recorded yet, and the Beethoven Triple!

You’ve been recording for, well, lots of years…

Don’t mention a figure! [laughs]

What are the main ways in which the recording industry has changed – for better or worse?

I’m recording more now than I’ve ever recorded in my life, I think. But certainly, people aren’t getting as rich on classical CDs as they used to. When the CD came out as a format, that was the golden time for people for getting rich, but then a lot of bad records came out, I think. People would do things just to have the repertoire on CD without actually particularly liking the music. There have been cases when people recorded something just to do a complete survey of composers’ works, and that doesn’t do any favours to the composer. [I’ve recorded for a lot of labels], but it doesn’t matter to me too much which label I’m on, it’s the quality of the recording that I care about. I only record things when I love the music and I don’t have to record anything that I don’t want to.

I guess I have a perception that while the breadth of repertoire available on recording still seems pretty wide, there has been a narrowing of the repertoire in concert halls. Is that your experience?

I would say the opposite as a cellist. When I was growing up it was always the Brahms Sonatas, the Beethoven Sonatas, some Bach. And it was always the same pieces everybody played for their debut. Now, people debut with much more interesting programmes, and that’s very helpful. Maybe orchestras other than the ACO – who take wonderful risks under my godson’s father, Mr Tognetti – are scared of taking risks for financial reasons, but I think soloists and chamber musicians are actually a lot more adventurous than they were. I think things have changed because they know in order to get an audience they have to capture the imagination.

If you could go back in time to any particular moment and place as a cellist, where would you love to have been born?

Maybe Leipzig when Bach was there. Then I’d go to sleep for a bit and wake up in Vienna where I’d meet Beethoven. Then I’d go to sleep for a bit again and meet Schubert, and then I’d go back to Leipzig and meet Schumann. And I wouldn’t mind waking up in Paris and meeting Fauré. But really it would have to be Bach. It’d be very interesting to ask him about the speeds for the Cello Suites, why he wrote them, and whether my feeling that they actually have a religious background is true. I’d like to test him on that.


Steven Isserlis’s recording of Haydn, CPE Bach and Boccherini, out now on Hyperion, is Limelight‘s Orchestral Recording of the Year 2017.