Steven Isserlis, a Friend of Bach


Millie Porter, Journalism Undergraduate, University of Roehampton

To Steven Isserlis, learning the Bach suites was a logical decision at the age of 11: Bach was present through his childhood household. Isserlis tells Bookfest about his musical upbringing and his recent deeper exploration of the greatest Cello notes of all time.

“I don’t think I will ever be on a stage with someone as talented as Steven Isserlis,” said The Observer’s Rachel Cooke, in conversation with the talented cellist in the Baillie Gifford Tent.

Steven Isserlis grew up in a musical household, and became a cellist to fill a niche: “My elder sister is a violist, my middle sister is a violinist, my father was a violinist, my mother was a pianist, they needed a cellist,’ he later told me. Isserlis’s message to young learners is to always enjoy. “My teacher made me feel that playing the cello was easy,” he explained, ‘’And that I should keep my mind and body relaxed. Thinking it was easy helped with that.

Unfortunately, we were unable to see Isserlis play live because the tent was too humid for cellos. Instead, the Bookfest audience was treated to a recording of a recent live performance by Isserlis performing Bach’s suites for solo cello. He picked the first and third suites because they are full of “light and joy”.

As a self-critical musician, Isserlis confesses, he never feels less than nervous playing the Bach suites. His performance at the salon-style Fidelio Café in Clerkenwell was beautiful though, and he recalled how much he enjoyed playing the two suites he knows best in front of a small audience.

His hands moved quickly and gracefully up and down his cello neck and his nimble fingers hopped elegantly across the strings. Playing from memory rather than sheet music, Isserlis gazed with intensity and passion into space as the music throbbed from his cello.

This is part of Isserlis’ skill and secret: playing without music means his hands work their magic, leaving him to experience the journey of sound, allowing the music to flow through him. “You should be able to listen to what the composer is telling you and nowhere is it more apparent than Bach’s suites”, he insisted.

The coronavirus pandemic gave Isserlis the chance to do some “detective work” into Bach’s Suites. ‘I always read and thought about them a lot but I wanted to delve more’’. The story behind the suites is incredibly magical: they were lost and found after a hundred years. For Bach, Isserlis believes, religion and music were intertwined.

Hearing Steven Isserlis speaking about Bach’s suites felt magically potent within itself. His compassion toward Bach and music spoke through his loving descriptions. “I don’t think anyone has writing better for the serenity of the instrument, Bach understood it.” Isserlis’ new book, The Bach Cello Suites, makes the suites ‘Crazily accessible’’ enthused Rachel Cooke.

Steven Isserlis' The Bach Cello Suites is available to buy from the links below: