Steven Isserlis: So why do I still practise?

The international cellist (l. in picture), a neighbour of ours, wonders why he keeps putting in the hard hours.

maisky, isserlis


A question that my girlfriend Joanna asked me the other day got me thinking. I was preparing the cycle of Beethoven’s sonatas and variations for piano and cello, which I was playing for perhaps the tenth time with Robert Levin on fortepiano; and Joanna wondered what it was that I was focussing on when practising works I know so well. It’s true that I could sit down, not having played any Beethoven for six months, and play any of the pieces almost as accurately as I do in concerts – anyone could, having played them so often.

But that isn’t the point. I do spend a lot of time focussing on intonation, as well as bow articulation – it’s essential, in order to reach a level at which one isn’t distracted by technical problems during performance. Even more vital, though, is to remind oneself of the exact position of every note in the work as a whole. One can read a novel many times, and know the plot pretty well; but will one remember every word? Unless one has a photographic memory, I think that the answer will be no. (And even if one has such a memory, will one remember the true meaning of the sentences?)

As an interpreter, one has to know, as it were, every word of the story – not just who are the main characters (or in musical terms, themes), but also the contrasts and similarities between them, how they develop and inter-react, and what journeys they experience. Reminding oneself of all this, and listening to the new messages that great music will send us each time one comes back to it, takes time. It’s not enough just to understand the basic structure (although that is of course essential; if you hear a performance that seems to go on forever, it is generally because the interpreters have no idea of the overall shape of the music, and are groping their way through the poor piece – it happens too often, unfortunately).

I find that the music of Bach, Beethoven and other works of true complexity (as well as, usually – and paradoxically – true simplicity) take far longer to reintroduce to my fingers and mind than, say, Shostakovich’s first concerto, which I was also playing on this same trip. I would certainly not call the latter superficial in any way – it’s a masterpiece! It is certainly not lacking in complexity, either. It is wonderfully cinematic and comparatively clear-cut, though, each note representing something pretty definite; returning to it is like a reunion with an old, very familiar friend. I have always to re-examine the score, of course – there are still surprises in store, details I have missed.

But I don’t think that my view of the essential nature of the concerto is likely to change radically. The last Beethoven sonatas, on the other hand, demand constant basic searching and revision, an open mind about the profound secrets concealed beneath the surface; there is more information per note, in fact, than in the Shostakovich. That is why I, in common with every other musician, have to keep practising the Beethoven sonatas so hard every time – both at my own instrument and away from it. And if I were to tell myself that by all those hours of work I have fully probed the depths of the music – I would be deluding myself!

(c) Steven Isserlis/Slipped Disc

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  • Mr. Isserlis articulates something that, to me, separates the true artists from the accomplished performers — namely, that they search the structure of the piece to find its architecture. They put themselves into the mind of the composer, and perform from that position.

    I first became aware of this mystery in listening to Heifetz. I stand in awe of those who do this…

    • What is it that makes you laugh when he mentions “profound secrets”? Isn’t great music (like great literature) that which does not–because it cannot–reveal its depths on initial encounter? That it requires years of repeated study to delve below the surface in tiny increments? Isn’t that finally the reason Schnabel, for example, kept performing the Schubert B-flat Sonata? And why Bruno Walter didn’t feel capable of doing justice to the Mozart G Minor Symphony until he was past 50?

      • Music is about sounds not secrets- and sounds don’t reveal anything except that which you bring to it . The rest is celebrated players plying their trade, laying on the verbal BS to various degrees of thickness. “introspection ” inner meanings” outer meanings “profound secrets ” it impresses the great unwashed that something is really going on in those heads beautifully posed to give impression they are waiting for inspiration from on high .
        Schnabel performed the Schubert over and over I suspect because he was too lazy to learn something new,

        • After your remark about Schnabel, I’d be interested to know if there are any performers or composers for that matter whose work you respect or admire. Do the last piano sonatas of Beethoven, say, or the late string quartets, or Schubert’s Winterreise or the Bach B Minor Mass have any impact on you? Meistersinger? Wozzeck? Did Klemperer keep conducting the 19th-century Austro-German repertory because he, too, was “too lazy” to learn other stuff?

          • Milka is right insofar as music is abstract, and doesn’t have explicit secrets or truths to reveal. That’s not to diminish it, but simply to suggest that this mysticism which Isserlis describes is bogus. We can still spend a lifetime enjoying and exploring the great works of the masters without expecting those works to reveal profound truths to us, note by note. I bet he could never tell us what those secrets are, either. Only the initiated are permitted to know the unknowable…

  • I happen (by virtue of marriage) to be in the same room as the German translator of many of Steven’s CD liner notes. For her work she has to consider every word that each author writes, as well as the wider sense, and then carry those words and their style into another language. She has looked up from her screen long enough to comment that she considers Steven to be one of the very best performer-writers on music that she translates – indeed, one of the writers whose work she looks forward to receiving: always interesting, eloquent, respectful of the music and of other musicians, sometimes nicely individual, yet always humble. I’d simply add that in Steven’s musings here we have another fine example of all those qualities.

  • Music is a religion and the musicians the worshippers.
    Music ,as a religion, we practice.
    Music is a moral support,illuminating,an energizing force
    Music brings the best in people.
    Maybe this is the reason we practice,we need it.!!!!

      • Taking you seriously and inquiring of you civilly is not “game-playing”. Your preemptive dismissal of a discussion you don’t wish to have (see above) is, of course, your prerogative, but effectively silencing (rather than engaging) those with whom you do not agree is, at best, boorish. It’s a tendency that, when raised to the level of politics and governance, is well-known and justly abhorred among civilized people.

        • Now we enter the labeling stage of ” civilized” society , your question had nothing to do with the original premise which was the nonsense coming from the Isserlis statement.
          You shifted from the bolster the points you are trying to make .
          What I think of composers and performers was not the topic .

          • Oh. Now I understand. Once the Topic Police makes the call, conversation is cancelled. Sounds vaguely familiar.

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