Steven’s enthusiasms – Composers


Late Schumann

“Of course I love the music of ALL the great composers, to a lesser or greater extent – as well as some pop music, especially (showing my age) the Beatles. As I said in my book, if I had to take one composer to a desert island – and thank God that I don’t! – it would have to be J.S. Bach. But I also have a missionary zeal to promote any lesser-known music which I think deserves to be heard more often. Under this category comes the late music of Robert Schumann. There’s a generally accepted idea that his late music is weak; I disagree VEHEMENTLY! Some of it is strange, definitely, and maybe not as immediately appealing as his earlier works; but the more one knows it, the more one gets to love it. A case in point is the violin concerto; this work was written in the last years of Schumann’s creative life (he was taken to a mental asylum in 1854, where he died in 1856). It is a strangely introspective work, with a curious humour, and  a somehow tired intimacy to it; but it’s so touching! I introduced my friend,the American violinist Joshua Bell, to it and, to my delight, he fell in love with it – and now plays it beautifully. Another stunning work is Schumann’s set of piano variations on a ‘spiritual’ theme (as it’s known) , op. post.  He had a dream,a few days before he was taken to the asylum, in which this theme  was sung to him by angels; he got up in the middle of the night, wrote it down, and in his last days of freedom, wrote variations on it. The strange thing is that it’s almost the exact same theme as the one in the slow movement of the violin concerto (and in an earlier song, too); but nobody, including Schumann, seems to have noticed this at the time. The variations are simple, sublime, valedictory – like a farewell to life. I adore them; but they’re hardly ever played. (By the way – some people have even described Schumann’s cello concerto (written in 1850) as a ‘weak work’. They should be shot – for their own good.)”

Carl Frühling

“An amateur clarinettist friend introduced me to the clarinet trio of Carl Frühling – and I loved it immediately! He wasn’t a great composer, perhaps – well, pretty definitely; but he’s a thoroughly loveable one. Having got to know this trio, I tried to find out more about him; but found it very hard to do so. Finally, I found a list of about 100 works in a German dictionary of music dating from the 1950s. But where are these works? I still don’t know. I found a piano quintet – which is wonderful – and now have a piano quartet (which I haven’t yet played); and then, in a music library in Vienna, I found a few songs, some operatic arrangements for piano, a Fantasy for flute (now published, edited by Emily Beynon), and the manuscript of  a ballet-suite for orchestra (now available at But, for the moment, that’s it; the vast majority of his works are lost. It would be THRILLING to find them!  Also in Vienna, I saw some letters of his to a choral conductor, who was quite well-known at the time; the letters are terribly sad. Frühling is begging, pleading with him to perform a choral work that Frühling has dedicated to the conductor; but, as far as one can tell from the letters, the performance never happens. At least he was somewhat well-known as a pianist in his lifetime (although he died in poverty). In 2000, we gave 2 concerts devoted to Brahms and Frühling at the Konzerthaus in Vienna; as we were waiting to go on the stage for the second concert, someone from the hall management handed me a sheaf of papers – listings of the programmes that Frühling himself had played in the same hall! That was spooky…”


“Saint-Saëns is famous, of course; but people are so snobbish about him! They consistently describe him as a third-rate composer. Rubbish, say I; of course, not all his music is great, by any means – but a lot of it isn’t MEANT to be great, in the sense of a profound statement about life and the human condition. That doesn’t make him a bad composer! He produced music, as he put it, as an apple-tree produces apples – almost as if he couldn’t help it. Some of it is just meant to entertain, some of it is deeper; his ‘Requiem’, for instance, is a seriously beautiful work. I don’t know nearly enough Saint-Saens; but of the pieces I do know, there’s not one that I don’t like – and several that I love. Besides, the man was astonishing: he was a classical scholar, a respected astronomer (who designed his own telescope) , a published poet, a philosopher and logician, a playwright, a travel writer, a  brilliant mathematician, an animal rights activist, as well as being an amazing pianist, a fine conductor, and possibly the greatest organist of his day. He composed, too. What a phenomenon! I wonder whether the people who are sniffy about him could match that range of achievements…”

Sergei Taneyev

“Taneyev is a fairly new enthusiasm of mine – I have heard quite little of his, really; but what I have heard is wonderful!  Weird and wonderful. His music is complicated, bizarre, fascinating, funny, exciting and touching – and like no other music. I think that one has to fall in love with it to play it properly, though; I’ve heard a couple of mediocre performances of his chamber-music that made it sound like mediocre music. It isn’t! He was a pupil of Tchaikovsky’s, who later became Tchaikovsky’s severest and most trusted critic – and a great friend. He was the teacher of Rachmaninov, Scriabin, Medtner – and of my grandfather, the pianist and (occasionally) composer, Julius Isserlis, who started having theory lessons with Taneyev when he was eleven years old – lucky boy! Taneyev must have been a marvellous man, too; everybody adored him (including Tolstoy’s wife, who adored him a little too much for her husband’s comfort – not that Taneyev seems even to have noticed). His music will never be as popular as Tchaikovsky’s or Rachmaninov’s –  it’s too complex and demanding for that; but the more one gets to know it, the more fascinated one becomes by it.”

Gabriel Fauré

“Fauré is well-known for a few works – but there’s much more to him than those works! For me, he is one of the all-time great composers; his music has an ecstatic radiance to it that I find incredibly moving and uplifting.  I think that he was a genius, whose time is still to come. His greatest pieces – including much of the chamber music – move me as deeply as any music.”