Steven Isserlis

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Steven Isserlis
Born (1958-12-19) 19 December 1958 (age 63)
London, England
  • Musician
  • author

Steven Isserlis CBE (born 19 December 1958) is a British cellist. He has led a distinguished career as a soloist, chamber musician, educator, author and broadcaster.[1] Acclaimed for his profound musicianship, he is also noted for his diverse repertoire, command of phrasing, and distinctive sound which is deployed with his use of gut strings.

Early life and education[edit]

Isserlis was born in London on December 19, 1958 into a musical family. 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. Isserlis has described how "playing music, playing together", was an integral part of his early family life.[2] His grandfather, Julius Isserlis,[3] who was a Russian Jew, was one of 12 musicians allowed to leave Russia in the 1920s to promote Russian culture, but he never returned.[4]

On the Midweek programme on 29 January 2014, Isserlis revealed that on arrival in Vienna in 1922, his pianist grandfather and father found a flat, but the 102-year-old landlady refused to take in a musician, because her aunt had a previous musician tenant who was noisy and would spit on the floor—this tenant was Ludwig van Beethoven.[5]

Isserlis went to the City of London School, which he left at the age of 14 to move to Scotland to study under the tutelage of Jane Cowan.[4] From 1976 to 1978 Isserlis studied at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music[6] with Richard Kapuscinski. Ever since his youth Daniil Shafran has been his cello hero, of whom Isserlis has described how "his vibrato, his phrasing, his rhythm all belonged to a unique whole... he was incapable of playing one note insincerely; his music spoke from the soul."[7]

The name 'Isserlis' is one of many European variations of the Hebrew name 'Israel'.[8]


Isserlis enjoys an active solo career and regularly appears with many of the world’s leading ensembles. He has performed with orchestras such as the Berliner Philharmoniker, Wiener Philharmoniker, Philharmonia Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich, London Symphony Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin and the NHK Symphony Orchestra.[9][10] He has also curated concert series for Wigmore Hall, New York’s 92nd Street Y and the Salzburg Festival.[11]

Isserlis is a staunch advocate of lesser-known composers and of greater access to music for younger audiences. He is committed to authentic performance and frequently performs with the foremost period instrument orchestras. He has performed Beethoven with fortepianist Robert Levin in Boston and London, and Dvořák's Cello Concerto with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment with Sir Simon Rattle. He has also published several editions and arrangements, principally for Faber Music, and was an advisor on new editions of Beethoven's cello sonatas and cello variations, as well as the cello concertos of Dvořák and Elgar. He commissioned a new completion of Prokofiev's Cello Concertino from the Udmurt musicologist Vladimir Blok, which was premiered on 11 April 1997 in Cardiff, with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Mark Wigglesworth.[12] At the other end of the spectrum, Isserlis has premiered works by composers John Tavener (who wrote The Protecting Veil especially for the cellist), Lowell Liebermann, Carl Vine, David Matthews, John Woolrich, Wolfgang Rihm, Mikhail Pletnev and Thomas Adès.

Isserlis has presented a number of festivals with long-term collaborators such as Joshua Bell, Stephen Hough, Mikhail Pletnev, András Schiff, Denes Varjon, Olli Mustonen and Tabea Zimmermann, and actors Barry Humphries[13] and Simon Callow.[14] He is artistic director of the International Musicians Seminar, Prussia Cove in West Cornwall, where he both performs and teaches.


Isserlis plays the Marquis de Corberon Stradivarius cello of 1726 on loan from the Royal Academy of Music. He also part-owns a Montagnana cello from 1740 and a Guadagnini cello from 1745, which he played exclusively from 1979 to 1998. Previously, he also performed on the De Munck Stradivarius which was loaned from the Nippon Music Foundation.[15]


Steven Isserlis is the author of two books for children on the lives of famous composers: the first is Why Beethoven Threw the Stew (Faber, 2001), and the second is Why Handel Waggled His Wig (Faber, 2006). He has also written three stories that have been set to music by Oscar-winning composer Anne Dudley. The first of the series Little Red Violin (and the Big, Bad Cello) received its first performance in New York in March 2007, followed by Goldipegs and the Three Cellos, and Cindercella.

In September 2016, Isserlis’ book targeted towards young musicians Robert Schumann's Advice to Young Musicians Revisited by Steven Isserlis was published by Faber & Faber.[16]

In October 2021, Faber & Faber published Isserlis' book The Bach Cello Suites - A Companion,[17] a volume entirely devoted to the history and music of Bach's Suites for unaccompanied cello.


Isserlis was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1998, and collected his award with his father, as his mother had died earlier that week.[4] In 2000, he was awarded the Robert Schumann Prize of the City of Zwickau. He is also one of the two living cellists included in the Gramophone Hall of Fame.

Personal life[edit]

His wife Pauline Mara, a flautist, died of cancer in June 2010.[18]


Isserlis' recordings reflect the breadth and eclecticism of his repertoire. His most recent release of reVisions for BIS includes arrangements and reconstruction of works by Debussy, Ravel, Prokofiev and Bloch.[18] For Hyperion Records,[19] Isserlis has recorded Schumann's music for cello and piano (Dénes Várjon), and the complete solo cello suites by Bach, which has won many awards, including Listeners' Disc of the Year on BBC Radio 3's CD Review, Gramophone's Instrumental Disc of the Year,[20] and "Critic's Choice" at the 2008 Classical Brits. Other releases include two recordings with Stephen Hough: the Brahms sonatas, coupled with works by Dvořák and Suk; a highly acclaimed disc of children's cello music for BIS Records; and a recording with Thomas Ades of his new piece 'Lieux retrouvés'. Recent releases included a disc in 2013 of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto with Daniel Harding and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra on Hyperion and Martinu's complete cello sonatas with Olli Mustonen on the BIS label in 2014 which received a Grammy nomination.

In 2017, Isserlis’ recording of Haydn's Cello Concertos was nominated for a Grammy Award.[21]


  • Why Beethoven Threw the Stew: And Lots More Stories about the Lives of Great Composers (2002)
  • Why Handel Waggled His Wig (2006)
  • Anthem Guide to the Opera, Concert Halls and Classical Music Venues of Europe (2007)
  • 1001 Classical Recordings You Must Hear Before You Die (2008)
  • Robert Schumann's Advice to Young Musicians Revisited by Steven Isserlis (2016)
  • The Bach Cello Suites: A Companion (2021)


  1. ^ "Violin Virtuoso Joshua Bell Mixes Music and Friendship in Upcoming Performance". The Smith Center. Retrieved 22 January 2022.
  2. ^ "Steven Isserlis (Cello) – Short Biography". Retrieved 23 October 2017.
  3. ^ Gdal Saleski, Singers of Jewish origin (1927). "Julius Isserlis, who is one of the most outstanding of the many pianists Russia has given to the world in the present generation, was born in Kishineff, Russia, on 26 October 1889."
  4. ^ a b c "Desert Island Discs with Steven Isserlis". Desert Island Discs. 2 December 2007. BBC. Radio 4.
  5. ^ Aspden, Peter (10 January 2014). "Cellist Steven Isserlis on his pianist grandfather and his compositions". Financial Times. Retrieved 22 February 2014.
  6. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 5 November 2011. Retrieved 25 July 2012.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  7. ^ Steven Isserlis: "Recollections of Daniil Shafran",, 1998
  8. ^ Hanks & Hodges 'A Dictionary of Surnames' (Oxford, 1988).
  9. ^ "Steven Isserlis". LA Phil. Retrieved 22 January 2022.
  10. ^ "Conversation with Steven Isserlis". Internet Cello Society. Retrieved 22 January 2022.
  11. ^ "Steven Isserlis CBE". Royal Academy of Music. Retrieved 22 January 2022.
  12. ^ Jr., Serge Prokofiev. "Prokofiev's unfinished Concertino: a twisted tale". Retrieved 23 October 2017.
  13. ^ "Classical Review: Sir Les on song". The Independent. 4 November 1997. Archived from the original on 25 May 2022. Retrieved 23 October 2017.
  14. ^ Isserlis, Steven (4 August 2006). "Steven Isserlis on Robert Schumann". The Guardian. Retrieved 23 October 2017.
  15. ^ "Steven Isserlis and his Stradivarius cello – the relationship between soloist and instrument". Retrieved 23 October 2017.
  16. ^ "Robert Schumann's Advice to Young Musicians". Public Store View. Retrieved 16 September 2016.
  17. ^
  18. ^ a b Maddocks, Fiona (14 August 2010). "Steven Isserlis: Revisions – CD review". The Guardian. Retrieved 23 October 2017.
  19. ^ "isserlis – Hyperion Records". Retrieved 23 October 2017.
  20. ^ Isserlis, Steven (2007). Hyperion (ed.). Bach: The Cello Suites (PDF). pp. 5–6.
  21. ^ "See The Full List Of 60th GRAMMY Nominees". National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. 27 November 2017. Retrieved 5 December 2017.

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