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Hyperion Records

CDA68025 - Isserlis: Piano Music
Composition with Red Horseman (1920) by Victor Nikoandrovich Palmov (1888-1929)
State Russian Museum, St Petersburg / Bridgeman Art Library, London
CDA68025

Recording details: January 2013
Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, United Kingdom
Produced by Annette Isserlis
Engineered by Ben Connellan
Release date: January 2014
DISCID: 8F0EA11B
Total duration: 62 minutes 23 seconds

'While Russian Romanticism permeates Isserlis's idiomatic and skilful keyboard-writing, the harmonic language is strikingly akin to composers such as Holst, Bax, Scott and Bowen … Haywood's sensitive, nuanced, technically assured interpretations ought to generate interest among pianists seeking out unusual, effective and accessible short pieces. The disc's centerpiece and most substantial work is the multi-thematic Ballade for cello and piano, originally written for Pablo Casals. Guest artist Steven Isserlis's fervent, big-boned artistry surely does his grandfather's impassioned cello-writing proud. Hyperion's superb production makes this disc all the more welcome' (Gramophone) » More

'This album makes for a delightful hour … this is salon music in the best sense of the word, reminiscent of Tchaikovsky's pieces d'occasion. Haywood's rubato is delicate and his touch pliantly expressive; when virtuosity is required, he delivers it comfortably, but for the most part he just lets the music's artless charm speak for itself' (BBC Music Magazine) » More
PERFORMANCE
RECORDING

'Sam Haywood’s new CD brings to our attention Julius Isserlis (1888-1968), a figure from the not so distant past who is not perhaps entirely forgotten … but well worth a fresh look … apart from two early works for piano and orchestra, a single song and the cello and piano piece recorded here, all of Isserlis’s music was conceived for the piano. He must have been an excellent pianist … the A minor Ballade, persuasively interpreted by the composer’s grandson, Steven, is an attractive recital number. The Ten Preludes of Op 2, seven of which Haywood presents, are closer to Chopin than Rachmaninov. Concentrated and succinct, they show Isserlis at his best … generally speaking, Isserlis speaks the tonal language of late Romanticism, with modal inflections from folk song and, on occasion, Debussy … this is an important contribution, shedding further light on Russian music of the first half of the twentieth century' (International Record Review) » More

'Haywood plays these works with consummate sensitivity, and has been well recorded. Isserlis seems to have been a charmer and, musically-speaking, a miniaturist and his works reflect an interesting channel to composition in Russia in the first two decades or so of the twentieth century' (MusicWeb International) » More

Piano Music
Moment triste  [1'49]
Moment musical  [0'47]
Meditation  [2'53]
In the Steppes  [1'28]
The bumblebee  [0'53]
Once in autumn  [2'00]
Marionettes  [1'26]
Warum?  [2'17]

In 1989 the young pianist Sam Haywood was awarded the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Julius Isserlis Scholarship. Years later, having become friends with Julius’s grandson Steven, Sam came across some of Julius’s piano compositions in a drawer at the house of George, Julius’s son. The editions were unclear and full of printing errors; so, struck by the beauty of the music, Sam decided to make his own edition, the fruits of which are to be heard on this recording.

Julius Isserlis was born in 1888 in Kishinev (now Chisinau in Moldova, though then part of Russia). He studied with, among others, Taneyev and Widor. As a Jew, he was exiled from Moscow, escaped from Vienna in 1938 and spent the rest of his life in London.

Isserlis’s greatest passion was for the music of Frédéric Chopin, who seems to have been his strongest influence. Nevertheless, his music retains its own very distinctive voice. Many of the short pieces are in minor keys and are pervaded by a yearning melancholy reminiscent of Slavic songs and folk dances. The playful virtuosity of several of the works is an indication not only of Isserlis’s own agility on the keyboard but also of that of their dedicatees (including Pablo Casals, who inspired the Ballade for cello and piano for which Sam Haywood is here joined by Steven Isserlis).


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
In 1989 the young pianist Sam Haywood was awarded the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Julius Isserlis Scholarship. Years later, having become friends with Julius’s grandson Steven and the rest of the Isserlis family, Sam came across some of Julius’s piano compositions in a drawer at the house of George, Julius’s son. The editions were unclear and full of printing errors; so, struck by the beauty of the music, Sam decided to make his own edition, the fruits of which are to be heard on this recording.

Julius Isserlis was born in 1888 in Kishinev (now Chisinau in Moldova, though then part of Russia). His mother was a midwife and his father, having been a cantor in the local synagogue, had retrained as a travelling dentist to supplement his income. Julius started playing the piano when he was four; he showed such early musical promise that the local Jewish community later applied for him to study at the Kiev Conservatoire under Professor Wlodzimierz Puchalski. In those days special permission was required for a Jew to travel to Kiev; eventually this was granted to the nine-year-old child. However, after just one year Puchalski sent him on to Moscow to study with the world famous director of the Moscow conservatoire, Vasily Safonov. At the age of ten he was by far the youngest pupil of this very strict professor. (A few years later, when the fourteen-year-old Julius omitted his least favourite of Beethoven’s Eroica Variations at a students’ concert, Safonov forced his pupil as a punishment to repeat this particular variation in every possible key at his next lesson!)

Harmony, counterpoint and composition were all on the syllabus and Isserlis was lucky enough to study the latter with Sergei Taneyev, who had been Tchaikovsky’s favourite student and whose other pupils included Rachmaninov, Medtner, Glière and Scriabin. Halfway through Julius’s studies, Taneyev retired to his country house near Moscow, where he was looked after by his old nanny. Here he taught Julius free of charge, lessons often lasting well into the night after which a bed and excellent meals were provided. Taneyev had also studied mathematics, history, natural and social sciences and philosophy—not surprisingly Julius Isserlis adored his teacher. At the age of sixteen he finished his studies in Moscow and was awarded the prestigious gold medal of the Conservatoire, where his name remains today engraved on the main board in the entrance hall.

In 1907 Julius Isserlis went to Paris to have lessons with Charles-Marie Widor, the famous organist and composer of the ubiquitous Toccata (from his fifth Organ Symphony). Coincidentally, Scriabin, whom Julius greatly admired, was in Paris at the time. On hearing Julius play, Scriabin recommended him as a soloist in a concert at Carnegie Hall in New York where he would be accompanied by the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra. This was a great success, and had he stayed on in the USA Julius would have been assured of a glittering career there. However, such was his homesickness for his family and Russia that, against all advice, he returned after just three weeks, never again to return to the States.

On his return to Moscow Isserlis was appointed professor at the College of the Imperial Philharmonic Society—the sole Jewish teacher there. In 1916 he gave a recital in the Odessa, the beautiful city on the Black Sea whose lively cultural life was still largely unaffected by the 1914 war. The recital was attended by a wealthy music-loving family, the Rauchwergers. Their oldest daughter, Rita, was also a pianist, and soon afterwards she and Julius were married; their son, George, was born in 1917.

Meanwhile, life in Odessa was becoming increasingly dangerous: the Bolsheviks were approaching the city. After a midnight raid on their home Julius and his family made an abortive attempt to escape on a British ship (on the way to the harbour the horse-drawn cart in which they were travelling got caught in the crossfire between the advancing Reds and the defenders). Shortly thereafter, it became apparent that Julius had contracted typhus from a lice-infested soldier. Ironically, the family’s failure to board the ship may have saved Julius’s life; had they made it he might well have been disposed of to prevent infecting the other passengers!

After a few months of convalescence Julius Isserlis went to Moscow to present himself to the authorities. Under Lenin’s Communist regime, musicians were sent all over the country to play for the workers in factories, hospitals and other institutions, the pianists usually performing on half-broken instruments. Life was very hard and anti-Semitism was rife. When in 1922 Lenin issued a decree allowing just twelve musicians to tour abroad as ambassadors for the Soviet Union, Julius reluctantly left his homeland; in 1923 he undertook the long train journey with his family via Riga, Berlin and Prague to Vienna.

Finding a flat to rent in Vienna was initially hard; one very old landlady refused to take in a pianist because she recalled her aunt having let rooms to a mad, deaf musician who spat all over the floor—Beethoven! However, having been joined by several relations and still hoping at some point to resume his disrupted career in Russia, Julius decided not to follow the example of several of his fellow musicians by travelling on to the USA. He resumed his career in Vienna, becoming a respected member of the well-documented musical world there, playing, teaching, sitting on juries, composing, and receiving visits from several of the Russian musicians passing through Vienna, including Nathan Milstein and Josef Lhévinne.

Needless to say, life in Vienna became increasingly dangerous as the Third Reich grew in power. With miraculously lucky timing Julius was engaged to travel to Britain for his first tour there in the very week of the Anschluss—the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany in 1938. After four anxious months he was granted British residency and his family was finally able to join him in London.

During the war years, despite the struggle of starting to rebuild his career all over again at the age of fifty, Julius was able to earn a living in London, teaching, playing lunchtime recitals at the National Gallery, broadcasting for the BBC, giving two Chopin recitals at Wigmore Hall and touring Britain with the Wessex Philharmonic (the precursor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra). After the war, however, he was gradually superseded by an influx of younger artists, and although he remained a fine pianist until his early seventies he was provided with fewer and fewer concerts by his agents. He and Rita moved to a flat in West Kensington, where his grandchildren—the present writer, my sister Annette and my brother Steven—used to visit ‘Babushka’ and ‘Diedushka’ every weekend, playing around on the two grand pianos that were crammed into the small living room. In 1963 Julius contracted Parkinson’s disease and he died five years later.

Apart from the Ballade for cello and piano, one song (to words by Blake) and two early Poèmes for piano and orchestra, Julius Isserlis’s output was all for solo piano. Although inspired by the music of composers including Rachmaninov (whose Cello Sonata he often played with its dedicatee, Anatoly Brandukov, the director of the Imperial College in Moscow), Ravel and Debussy, Isserlis’s greatest passion was for the music of Frédéric Chopin, who seems to have been his strongest influence. Nevertheless, his music retains its own very distinctive voice. Many of the short pieces are in minor keys and are pervaded by a yearning melancholy reminiscent of Slavic songs and folk dances. The playful virtuosity of several of the works is an indication not only of Isserlis’s own agility on the keyboard but also of that of their dedicatees.

Julius Isserlis’s attachment to the music of Chopin is clearly to be heard in the Ballades, Op 3. The score of the first Ballade was found in the Moscow State Library by a friend of Sam Haywood’s, Katerina Nakuripova-Pereverzeva, to whom we acknowledge our thanks; she was not allowed to take it out of the library or make a photocopy so she kindly copied it out by hand. This lilting piece, which contrasts the impassioned outburst of the second Ballade, was written in memory of Taneyev, who died in 1915 after contracting a chill at Scriabin’s funeral. The short Moment triste consists of a wistful Russian melody which was later used in the Ballade for cello and piano.

Kind, charming and humorous, Julius seems to have been much loved by his many pupils and friends, to whom various pieces are dedicated. Of the Ten Preludes, Op 2, only seven are available; the remaining three are secure in the Moscow State Library with access to them strictly denied. The first Prelude was dedicated to Constantin Romanovitch Eiges, another pianist-composer pupil of Taneyev’s. (No 6 is again dedicated to the master himself.)

After the melancholy of the Op 2 Preludes, the Prelude exotique and the Toccata in fourths, which together comprise Isserlis’s Op 10, composed in Vienna, provide light relief with their virtuosity and French-style harmonies. The Prelude exotique is a humorous depiction of the Orient, and has the most modern harmonies of all the pieces recorded here. Apparently Julius performed the Toccata in fourths frequently—it must have made a good encore or party piece.

The Ballade for cello and piano is dedicated to Pablo Casals, who wrote two letters suggesting some changes; it is not clear whether he actually performed it. The longest piece on this recording, it has four recurring themes. The first is searing and chromatic, leading to an expansive tune of rising scales. A wild dance with accompanying pizzicati in the cello part is followed by the melody already heard in the Moment triste.

The dreamy Skazka (Fairy Tale), Op 6, puts one in mind of Ravel’s Mother Goose. It was dedicated to a pupil of Isserlis, the Polish-born Severin Turel, who managed to achieve a successful career in the USA despite having been sent to a German concentration camp, but died tragically young of a heart attack during a recital. Hedwig Kanner-Rosenthal, to whom the colourful and contrasting Klavierstücke, Op 8, are dedicated, was a renowned Hungarian pianist and teacher who married her teacher Moriz Rosenthal and later also settled in the USA.

The Souvenir russe is in the style of the Moment triste but with a lively Gopak-like dance in the middle. This is followed by a virtuoso cameo, the Capriccio, Op 12, which is the last of the compositions on this recording to be written. There is, perhaps, an echo of Debussy as the piece opens, but this is quickly swept away as it metamorphoses into a spirited Russian dance. The vividly evocative Memories of Childhood, Op 11, are mainly set in the upper register of the piano—the pitch of a child’s voice. In terms of technique they are within reach of less advanced pianists, so long as one does not try to invoke too speedy a bumblebee!

Warum? is inscribed ‘in memory of my dear Julian’. This was Julian Scriabin, the prodigy son of Alexander Scriabin, who died in a boating accident at the age of eleven, having composed four beautiful Preludes for piano a year earlier. Following this poignant piece, the recording ends on an upbeat note with the boisterous Russian Dance, Op 7.

Despite all the turmoil in Julius’s life—leaving home whilst still a child, the tragedies and upheavals of two wars, the loss of so many friends, the exile from his beloved Russia, and the petering out of his career at the end of his life—one hopes that he still felt lucky: lucky to have survived with his immediate family intact and to have lived out his last years safely in England. And we, his grandchildren, feel lucky and grateful to have had his music presented on this recording by our friend Sam Haywood.

Rachel Isserlis © 2014

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