Speaking with legends

I am always excited by the prospect of a new series at the Wigmore Hall. To my delight, John Gilhooly is continuing Bill Lyne’s enlightened policy of encouraging musicians to realise their musical dreams; many of my happiest musical memories are of Wigmore concerts, especially in which I have been able to make music with friends as part of a festival.

This season, however, I am embarking on something a little different.  I have had the idea for some time: a series of interviews with ‘legendary’ (not that I’m sure what that word is supposed to mean) musicians whom I know well. I am a bit nervous about my interviewing skills – I’m sure that I am no Michael Parkinson.  But I do think that I understand something about my three interviewees; I feel close to them, and flatter myself that our friendships are special. I have performed with two of them – and I adore them all.

Ivry Gitlis is perhaps more famous with the general public in France and Japan than he is here in Britain; but among musicians, he is truly a legend. Endless stories are told about him everywhere that musicians congregate.  He has had a more varied career than anyone I know. Sponsored by Hubermann, he studied with Flesch, Enesco and Thibaud. For many years he lived in London (where, some time after the war, he apparently went on a date with my mother! She told me that, anyway, although Ivry has no memory of it – hardly flattering.) Thereafter he moved to Paris, where he acted (not as a violinist, but as a magician, which is thoroughly appropriate) in a Truffaut movie, performed with Marcel Marceau, improvised with Stephane Grapelli, was the favourite violinist of John Lennon (although Ivry did NOT enjoy performing with Yoko Ono on the Rolling Stones’ Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus), spent much time in Africa, was appointed as a Goodwill Ambassador for Unesco – and so on.  He is unique!

Everything rests on his incredible talent for communicating with people. I first met him in Israel, backstage after a concert I’d given with Tabea Zimmermann and Itamar Golan. The moment he walked in, I knew he was going to be part of my life. He fixed me with his electric blue eyes, blew smoke in my direction (I’d have hated anyone else who’d done that! Luckily he has since given up the filthy habit), talked in his silky voice – and I was hooked! Fairly soon afterwards, he gave a recital, with his then regular partner Ana-Maria Vera, at the Wigmore, and I went along. I remember that Nigel Kennedy was there too; he and I don’t share exactly similar tastes in all ways – but we were united in our enthusiasm for that concert. The Kreutzer sonata in particular was amazing – character bursting out of every note.  At the party afterwards, Nigel and I got to feel Ivry’s strength, when, in an affectionate gesture, he put his arms around us – and practically throttled us both!

Since then, Ivry and I have spent time together in various places, and played chamber music, most memorably the Mendelssohn D minor trio with Martha Argerich. Ivry is a law unto himself in every way; both Martha (not exactly a weak character herself!) and I fastened our eyes and ears on him, and followed him every step of the way. It was exciting! He challenges his listeners uncompromisingly, his personality taking possession of the hall. Perhaps it’s not for everyone – but I, and countless others, find it thrilling. Ivry has simply forgotten to grow old. He called recently, and I asked him how he was; ‘Well,’ he replied, ‘the graveyards are full, so I’m still here’.  Recently, I went to meet him at  St Pancras station, where he was waiting for the Eurostar back to Paris. Because he had so much luggage, he’d decided to ask for a wheelchair to take him to the train.  We were sitting and talking, talking, talking (as we always do – usually with a fair measure of quarrels thrown in) when Ivry looked at his watch. ‘Oy – I was supposed to meet the man with the wheelchair five minutes ago’. Off he tore, with me in hot pursuit, trying vainly to explain that the wheelchair-operator might be a little puzzled to have his client arrive at the meeting-point running like a hare on speed.

My second interview victim is an equally strong character – Ms Ida Haendel. My introduction to her set the tone for the unexpected nature of our interaction throughout our friendship. I went to a marvellous recital she gave at the Wigmore (all roads lead to the Wigmore) and was taken backstage to meet her afterwards. I put out my hand. ‘Hello – my name is Steven Isserlis.’ She recoiled and looked at me with extreme doubt. ‘You’re NOT!’ she said accusingly. That took me aback a bit – I was sure that for once I was right.  Anyway, she eventually conceded that I might be the person I claimed to be, and said that she’d been wanting to get together for ages. So we did, and became great friends. (It may seem strange when I refer to these people, who are officially of an older generation than me, as close friends; but they are just that. And I have never for a moment thought of any of them as father or mother figures – more like older brother and sisters.) Ida and I have also played together – the Beethoven Triple, again with Martha Argerich, who loves both Ida and Ivry; it was another unique experience. Ida, as she says herself, IS the violin. It’s hard to keep her away from the instrument! Last summer, she and I were together for several days at a festival in the US. We both played in the final concert (she played Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy – just astonishing). Late that night – at about 1 am – we found ourselves at a fairly full 24-hour diner.  At one point I asked Ida if she’d ever played the Schumann violin concerto. ‘Have I played it?’ she queried indignantly.  She got up, opened the violin case – and the nearby drunken teenagers, rowdy bikers and giggly students were privileged to have their burgers, ketchup and fries accompanied by a near-complete rendition of Schumann’s violin concerto. Perhaps it happens to them all the time – but they did seem a touch surprised…

My third guest is Marta Istomin Casals, a very rare visitor to these shores. I met her in Kronberg, Germany, when I was playing a recital at a cello festival. It’s always terrifying to play in front of all those cellists. By the second encore, though, I was finally relaxed – until it suddenly occurred to me that I was playing Song of the Birds, Casals’ signature tune, to an audience that included his widow!  However, she was lovely afterwards, putting me at my ease. That night, I had a strange dream in which she was giving a rock concert! The next day, I told her, and she seemed pleased; ever since, I have called her Rock Star. Whenever I see her, I try to get my head around one extraordinary fact: the first husband of this youthful, energetic lady was born in 1876, 21 years before Brahms died, 38 years before the First World War broke out, and less than 50 years after the death of Beethoven. It makes nonsense of time.  I suppose that that’s what happens when an 18-year-old marries an 80-year-old.  Whenever I see her, I pummel poor Marta with questions about Casals (my hero, of course) and her own fascinating story; now I’ll get to do it in public!

My other ‘project’ – I hate that word! – at the Wigmore this year is also unusual: a series of three programmes featuring cello and voice. It is so often said that of all musical instruments, the cello is closest to the human voice (though of course it has a far larger range than any human – ha!) I think that the two work wonderfully together, the cello complementing any sort of voice; but there are curiously few works that combine them. I have spent many years collecting such pieces as there are, some with and some without other instruments. A few of my ‘finds’ will be featured in these programmes, alongside more standard masterpieces such as Ravel’s Chansons Madecasses, and Shostakovitch’s powerful Blok songs.

The three concerts will be highly contrasted. There’s a Russian programme with Isabel Bayrakdarian, a French evening with Lucy Crowe, and with Mark Padmore a mixed English/Italian/Schubert programme. (A bit less neat, but I jump at every opportunity to work with Mark!)  Each recital features a contemporary British work, songs that demand a somewhat instrumental approach from the singer, and cello sonatas that treat the cello like a voice. I have been hoping to do this series for years; it’s good to be spoiled enough not merely to get the chance to do it with so many wonderful musicians, but to do it in my favourite hall!