Music is a great healer
STEVEN ISSERLIS, a British cellist, is known for his intimate and impassioned performance style. Preferring to use instruments with gut strings instead of modern steel ones, he plays mostly on the “Marquis de Corberon” Stradivarius (made in 1726) loaned to him by the Royal Academy of Music.
This month he launches “Music in the Shadow of War”, a series of four concerts showcasing chamber music composed before, during and after the two world wars. Mr Isserlis will be performing these concerts at Wigmore Hall with a rotating group of musicians over the coming year, coinciding with the centenary of the first world war in 2014.
Although intense and solemn the programme is also uplifting, featuring works by Shostakovich, Debussy and Ravel. The pieces chosen by Mr Isserlis highlight each composer’s response to conflict, and he hopes audiences will be moved as well as fascinated.
Mr Isserlis spoke to The Economist about creating the series, why so many composers were inspired by conflict and the healing qualities of great music.
What inspired you to create this series of concerts?
I have always been fascinated by composers’ responses to outside events or, in some cases, non-responses. Unsurprisingly, the two world wars produced a host of deeply intense music but also generated many works that seem to turn their back on the outside world.
What are you hoping audiences will take away from the series?
I do hope they will be moved by the performances of great masterpieces such as the trios of Ravel and Shostakovich, the sonatas of Janacek and Martinu, and Elgar’s monumental piano quintet. However, I also hope they will be fascinated by the many lesser-known works, a couple of which I have never heard.
We do have some real rarities in store. For instance, music for children composed during the two wars by Stravinsky and Walton, and a hymn-based work for string quartet produced in order to encourage Czech nationalism by the great—and still underrated—Czech composer, Josef Suk.
Do you think modern audiences can relate to the sense of wartime losses in these works?
Wartime losses are perhaps not so different from other losses. The sense of regret for a world lost to madness expressed in Elgar’s wartime works, for instance, is as much personal as topical. The introduction to the last movement of Mozart’s G minor string quintet, apparently composed as a reaction to the death of his father, is as poignant an expression of loss as any wartime composition. Again, we come back to the same simple cliché: music is music. Anyone can respond to these works.
Why do you think so many composers are inspired by conflict?
I think that for the great composers, as for the great performers, music is their emotional outlet so naturally their music will reflect their experiences, though in infinitely varied ways.
Do you think people would have experienced chamber music differently during wartime?
The knowledge that they might be dead the next day may well have sharpened their responses. One of the healing qualities of great music is that during difficult times of whatever sort, it can provide a catharsis for composer, performer and listener.
Shostakovich, whose work you will play in the series, composed music during wartime that he viewed as a “voice of the people”. How powerful is his music as political protest?
His music is, of course, powerful as the voice of protest and perhaps more so because it is so often clothed in a mask of false triumph. The piano trio that we are playing has none of that pretence, however, except perhaps that what is described on the page as a memorial to a Jewish friend is enlarged into an agonised depiction of the sufferings of all Jews.
You have a recording of Dvorak’s cello concertos coming out in October. Is there a reason why you have waited 40 years to record them?
Firstly, I wasn’t ready for many of those years. The B minor concerto is the most famous of all cello concertos and one has to be very sure what one has to say about it before committing it to disc. Then I had to wait for the right conditions to present themselves, which they did when the wonderful Mahler Chamber Orchestra declared themselves keen to do the recording with Daniel Harding conducting.
How much of your cello-playing is emotional and how much is intellectual or physical?
I have no idea. There is no separation for me.
What emotional qualities does a musician need to address the demands of the best chamber pieces?
One needs to understand a work as much as one can and that means studying it, thinking about it and trying to get inside the mind and soul of the composer. The nearest analogy is that of an actor trying to become the character he or she is playing.
“Music in the Shadow of War” will be at Wigmore Hall, London, on September 17th 2013, February 1st, April 5th and July 11th 2014