The English cellist, Steven Isserlis, was born into a musical family. His grandfather, who was a Russian Jew, was one of 12 musicians allowed to leave Russia in the 1920’s to promote Russian culture, but he never returned. His mother was a piano teacher, and his father was a keen amateur musician. His sister Annette is a viola player, and his other sister Rachel is a violinist. He says that playing music, playing together, was part of his early family life. He went to the City of London School. He left school at the age of 14 and then moved to Scotland where he studied under the tutelage of Jane Cowan. He studied at Oberlin Conservatory of Music and was much influenced by the great iconoclast of Russian cello playing, Daniil Shafran.Isserlis is a longtime Beatles fan, and his own distinctive hairstyle, a mop of thick curly, hair, was inspired by the Beatles. He is an acquaintance of Paul McCartney. His family was supportive of his early music career, even when he was not earning that much money.
Acclaimed worldwide for his technique and musicianship, Steven Isserlis enjoys a distinguished career as a soloist, chamber musician and teacher. He is distinguished for his diverse repertoire, distinctive sound (due in part to his use of gut strings) and total command of phrasing. He plays both as soloist and chamber musician and has revived many neglected works. He has also organized a number of festivals with long-term collaborators such as violinists Joshua Bell and Catherine Manson; pianists Stephen Hough, Mikhail Pletnev, András Schiff and Denes Várjon; and violist Tabea Zimmermann. Many new works have been written for him by composers such as John Tavener, Thomas Ades, Wolfgang Rihm, Carl Vine, and Douglas Weiland.
Highlights of recent and future seasons include performances with the Berliner Philharmoniker and Alan Gilbert, the National Symphony Orchestra (Washington) and the Budapest Festival Orchestra with Iván Fischer, the Minnesota Orchestra under Osmo Vanska, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Zubin Mehta and Kurt Masur, and the Philharmonia Orchestra under Vladimir Ashkenazy and András Schiff. He has also participated in a European tour with the Orchestre des Champs-Elysees and Philippe Herreweghe; two concerts in which he directed the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in an all-Haydn programme; recitals at London's Wigmore Hall with András Schiff, Thomas Adès, Olli Mustonen and Stephen Hough; chamber music concerts at the Salzburg Festival with Joshua Bell, Denes Varjon, Jorg Widmann and Emily Beynon, Carnegie Hall, BBC Proms (2009) and Aldeburgh Festival with collaborators including Joshua Bell, Thomas Adès, Jörg Widmann, Emily Beynon, Anthony Marwood and Denes Várjon; recitals in Washington, San Francisco, Vancouver and Milan; an Australian recital tour with Denes Várjon; and a series of concerts specially devised for the 2010 Cheltenham Festival to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Robert Schumann’s birth. Isserlis made his debut directing from the cello in February 2008, with the Irish Chamber Orchestra at the National Concert Hall in Dublin.
2010-2011 season includes appearances with the Cleveland Orchestra and Ton Koopman, NHK Symphony and Tadaaki Otaka, the Philharmonia Orchestra and András Schiff, Wiener Symphoniker and Thomas Dausgaard, Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Daniel Harding, Washington National Symphony Orchestra and Vladimir Ashkenazy, and Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic and Vladimir Ashkenazy; the world premiere of the surviving fragment of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Cello Concerto in a completion by David Matthews at the BBC Proms; an Italian recital tour with Olli Mustonen; recitals in London and Warsaw with Stephen Hough; a UK tour playing the Johannes Brahms Double Concerto with the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields and Joshua Bell; and chamber music concerts in Amsterdam, Budapest and Frankfurt. In addition he will be Artist in Residence at the Wigmore Hall and will take part in a number of concerts throughout the season as chamber musician and recitalist, as well as leading a series of educational events.
Steven Isserlis takes a strong interest in authentic performance and has played with many of the foremost period instrument orchestras. Recent seasons have seen him perform Dvorak's Cello Concerto with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Sir Simon Rattle, and L.v. Beethoven's complete works for cello and keyboard with fortepianist Robert Levin in Boston and London, as well as Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra with Nicholas McGegan. In 2010-2011 he will tour with The Academy of Ancient Music and Richard Egarr. He is also a keen exponent of contemporary music, and has worked with many composers on new commissions since giving the world premiere of John Tavener's Protecting Veil at the BBC Proms in 1989. In 2006 he gave the world premiere of Wolfgang Rihm's Cello Concerto at the Salzburg Festival, and at the 2009 Aldeburgh Festival he premiered Thomas Adès's new work for cello and piano, Lieux Retrouves, together with the composer; they will also perform it together in London and New York.
As a chamber musician, Steven Isserlis is renowned for his collaborations with other artists and for his ingenuity and innovation in programming. He enjoys a close association with London's Wigmore Hall and has devised several series of themed programmes for them in recent years. In 2009 he programmed three concerts celebrating the music of Robert Schumann, Felix Mendelssohn and Chopin, for the 92nd St Y in New York, which he performed with Joshua Bell, Denes Varjon and Daniel Phillips.
Writing and playing for children is another major interest for Steven Isserlis. He is the author of two books for children on the lives of famous composers. His first book, a children's history of the lives of six great composers, Why Beethoven Threw the Stew, was published Faber and Faber in 2001 to great acclaim, and a sequel, Why Handel Waggled his Wig, was published in 2006. Both books have been translated into many languages. Since 2006 he has presented a series of concerts for children, based on his books, at the 92nd St Y in New York. With pianist Stephen Hough he has recorded a CD, “Children's Cello”, and with composer Anne Dudley he has written three musical stories for children: Little Red Violin, Goldiepegs and the Three Cellos, and Cindercella (Published by Universal Edition, Vienna) all of which he premiered at the 92nd St Y with Joshua Bell, Jeremy Denk and others, and which are published by Universal Edition in Vienna. He has also made several additions for Faber Music and sheetmusicnow.com. As an educator, Steven Isserlis gives frequent master-classes all around the world, and for the past thirteen years he has been Artistic Director of the International Musicians' Seminar at Prussia Cove in Cornwall, where he both performs and teaches..
With an award-winning discography, Steven Isserlis's recordings reflect his diverse interests in repertoire. His recent release of the complete Solo Cello Suites (BWV 1007-1012) by J.S. Bach on the Hyperion label met with the highest critical acclaim and won many awards, including Gramophone magazine's Instrumental Disc of the Year and Critic's Choice at the 2008 Classical Brits. Other recent releases include the Johannes Brahms sonatas with Stephen Hough, coupled with works by Dvorak and Suk, also for Hyperion. His latest recording release is an all-Robert Schumann disc, again with Várjon, for Hyperion, of which Gramophone magazine said, 'For all that Isserlis has made many wonderful recordings, not least his seminal Bach suites, I think this might just be his finest yet.' His new disc for BIS, of arrangements for cello chamber orchestra all commissioned by Isserlis, entitled “reVisions”, is scheduled for release in September 2010.
The recipient of many honours, Steven Isserlis was in awarded a CBE in 1998 in recognition of his services to music, and collected his award with his father, as his mother died earlier that week. He was awarded the Schumann Prize 2000 by the city of Zwickau.
Steven Isserlis plays the 'Feuermann' or 'De Munck' Stradivarius of 1730, kindly loaned to him by the Nippon Music Foundation of Japan, and the Marquis de Corberon (Nelsova) Stradivarius of 1726, kindly loaned to him by the Royal Academy of Music. He also part-owns a Montagnana cello from 1740 and a Guadagnini cello of 1745, which he played exclusively from 1979 to 1998 and part-owns with David Waterman, cellist of the Endellion Quartet. He is married to Pauline, a former flute player, and they have a son, Gabriel, who is currently studying to be a movie Director in the Rochester Institute of Technology in America.