Cellist Steven Isserlis talks to Christopher Morley about his Czech weekend in Malvern.
Not content with being a supremely gifted cellist, Steven Isserlis is also a communicator of great charm and a dedicated teacher.
He is also an imaginative wordsmith who devises themed concerts and writes linking scripts, and he also writes books for children introducing them to the world of music. This weekend in Malvern all of these talents will come to the fore.
A mini-festival of Czech music kicks off on Saturday morning with a viola masterclass given by Garfield Jackson, founder-member of the Endellion String Quartet and a frequent chamber-music performer with Isserlis, but from then on it's very much the cellist himself at the heart of proceedings.
How has the project come about?
"It actually stemmed from Keith Stanley, a Malvern resident whom I knew because he was a shareholder in the Montagnana cello I am trying to buy," Isserlis tells me from Berlin, having just arrived there for a concert.
"He wrote to me suggesting that we mount a weekend of concerts in Malvern. I can't quite remember at which point the idea of an all-Czech weekend came up, but it was probably fairly early in the proceedings, since I adore so much Czech music and feel that series of all-Czech programmes tend to work very well – perhaps better even than all-French or all-Russian ones."
Isserlis expands about his love for the music of that delightful part of Europe.
"I adore many Czech composers, especially Dvorak and Janacek. But I also love Martinu, Suk and Smetana. I'm sorry that in the end there was no room for anything by Smetana in any of the concerts – another time...
"I think that all of them are possessed of a particular charm that is quite uniquely Czech – something to do with the dance tradition that beats so strongly through their music, and of the curiously innocent harmonic language that they employ, even Janacek."
Saturday night's concert with the Philharmonia Orchestra (much in the Midlands at the moment) conducted by Joseph Swensen features Steven Isserlis as soloist in both of Dvorak's cello concertos.
Both concertos? Most music-lovers know only the one, the magnificent B minor Concerto written by Dvorak while he was head of the New York Conservatoire, aching with nostalgia for his homeland. But, as Isserlis explains, there is also a much earlier example from the great composer's pen, a work for which he has much fondness.
"I've always been fascinated by 'Sleeping Beauties', neglected works by great composers. Dvorak's A major Cello Concerto belongs in that category, I think – though with a twist," he explains.
"The piece was written in 1865, when Dvorak was still groping his way towards mastery. The original version, which was never orchestrated and survived only in a manuscript piano score discovered in Germany, had lovely ideas, but also a lot of bad writing.
"In the 1920s a distinguished musicologist and composer, Gunther Raphael, decided to rewrite the piece in the way he thought Dvorak, who probably believed that the manuscript had been lost forever, would have done, had he come back to it in his maturity
"It is Raphael's version that I play – far from Dvorak's original, but a lovely piece in its own right. Of course it's not a masterpiece like the B minor Concerto – but do you strangle an older son because he's not as brilliant as his younger sibling?
"It was entirely at Keith's insistence that we programmed both the Dvorak cello concertos in one programme. My ego is big, but not that big. Or rather, I normally keep it a little more under wraps than it's likely to be that night."
Sunday morning sees Steven Isserlis presiding over a cello masterclass with young musicians playing various works by Dvorak, and immediately after lunch there is a Children's Concert featuring short pieces by Dvorak, Martinu and Janacek. It also includes readings from Isserlis' children's book Why Handel Waggled His Wig.
The cellist turned author tells me more about his literary activities.
"I've written two books for children: Why Beethoven Threw the Stew and Why Handel Waggled His Wig. I write quite a lot for adults, in that I write my own booklet notes for my CDs, and regular articles for various publications (principally the Guardian), but I haven't yet written a book specifically for adults.
"I may, though – I'm having a hard time deciding what to write next."
Sunday evening brings the conclusion of this Czech weekend with an invitation to join "Steven Isserlis and Friends" in a programme of chamber music, when along with violinist Katharine Gowers, violist David Adams and pianist Connie Shih, Isserlis performs works by Suk, Janacek, Martinu and Dvorak.
Isserlis previews the concert in enthusiastic terms.
"The chamber-music programme will consist of Suk's gloriously romantic Piano Quartet op.1, written when he was 17 and studying with Dvorak, his future father-in-law; Janacek's Pohadka, or 'fairy-tale', a real charmer of a piece for cello and piano; Martinu's dramatic first sonata, written in Paris in the shadow of the Second World War and Nazism; and one of Dvorak's greatest masterpieces, his E-flat Piano Quartet Op.87.
"The three other musicians are regular chamber-music partners of mine, all of whom I have played with at IMS Prussia Cove (in the glorious setting of the Cornish cliffs), the musical seminar of which I'm director, and elsewhere.
"They are all marvellous musicians, and their energy will wake me up if I'm flagging at the end of what promises to be quite a weekend. Hopefully it will send us away with our heads full of beautiful melodies and a general feeling that life is better than we thought."
Our interview ends on a bizarre and endearing note. When I ask Steven Isserlis if there is anything else he'd like to tell me, this is his response.
"Yes. There was once an aardvark who was taught to play the cello.
"Of course, it's not true, but I feel that I should tell you anyway."
Steven Isserlis' Czech Weekend is held at Malvern Theatres on Saturday and Sunday. All details on 01684 892277, and at www.malvern-theatres.co.uk.