"That’s me wearing Harpo’s wig.” Steven Isserlis points at a photo above his kitchen table. The great British cellist is related to some extraordinary people, including Felix Mendelssohn, Helena Rubinstein and Karl Marx. Harpo Marx is not one of them, but is a hero of his nonetheless.
Like Harpo — about whom he once made a programme for Radio Four — Isserlis matches mesmeric music-making with irrepressible wit. On the one hand, he moves audiences to tears with the tenderness of his playing, and on the other hand reduces readers of all ages to tears of laughter with his children’s books, Why Handel Waggled his Wig and Why Beethoven Threw the Stew (both published by Faber and Faber) . They have now been favourites with a whole generation of musical kids — and their parents.
His Twitter account makes lively reading, full of hair-raising stories about his travels with his cello. “I was on a Japanese airline, business class — very nice — and I asked the stewardess if she could help make up the bed,” he recounts. “I thought she said: ‘Are you sexy?’ It took me a minute to work out that ‘Yes, I’m in 6C…’”
He is now about to turn 60. To mark his birthday later this month, he is taking over the Wigmore Hall on December 17 for a marathon of music and words, starting with the actor Gabriel Woolf reading some of Isserlis’s favourite passages from Charles Dickens, P G Wodehouse, and Noel Langley’s The Land of Green Ginger.
Isserlis will then join luminaries including the pianists András Schiff, Radu Lupu, Ferenc Rados and Connie Shih; the violinist Joshua Bell (“my ‘younger brother’”) and the baritone Simon Keenlyside (“we were neighbours in Roehampton and best friends aged four”) in music by Schumann, Beethoven, Grieg, Schubert, Fauré and more.
Isn’t performing at the Wigmore Hall rather a busman’s holiday? “I had the Wigmore for my 40th and 50th birthdays as well,” Isserlis says, “but I didn’t play at those. John Gilhooly [director of the Wigmore Hall] told me very solemnly this time that I had to play. But I do get to perform with some of my heroes.” The birthday itself is two days after his concert, he adds: “I hope to be knocked down by a bus the day before my actual birthday, because otherwise my life insurance runs out and it would be a terrible waste of money…”
In the real world, Isserlis has no intention of slowing down. A special highlight this year, he says, was a trip to Krakow to give a concert in the beautiful historic synagogue where his ancestor Rabbi Moses Isserles presided in the 16th century: “I visited his grave and saw his place that nobody has sat at since he died. But in the concert my yarmulke kept falling off. I should have pinned it on. You know how I shake my head around when I play — it had no chance!”
He has a new recording of sonatas by Kabalevsky and Shostakovich just out on the Hyperion label, with the pianist Olli Mustonen; and back at the Wigmore Hall he is presenting a season-long series that pairs two of his best-loved composers, Schumann and Fauré, who, he considers, “share the gift of ecstasy”. With eclectic musical interests ranging from early music to the present day — composers including John Tavener, David Matthews and Thomas Adès have all written new works for him over the years — he is in heavy demand internationally. “I’d love to write more books, but I haven’t got time,” he growls. Another is in the works, though he won’t reveal what it is yet.
One thing Isserlis does find time for is being president of the Ernest Bloch Society. “Bloch is not just notable because he’s a Jewish composer — he’s an incredibly talented, vivid composer of all kinds of music,” he enthuses. “The Piano Quintet, and the Suite From Jewish Life, everything I’ve played, is just wonderful.” To many listeners, Bloch’s From Jewish Life shows that the cello perfectly embodies Judaic mysticism, darkness and melancholy. “Of course it does — and Christian and Muslim and beyond,” says Isserlis, smiling. “The cello embodies everything.”
Steven Isserlis’s 60th Birthday Concert is at the Wigmore Hall on 17 December, 5.30pm.