I first became aware of Julius Isserlis when I bought an old 1963 Delta LP of him playing Scriabin’s Op 11 Preludes. The notes were by René Elvin but disappointingly they were all about the music and there wasn’t a word about the studious looking pianist shown in a photograph on the jacket cover. His name was in a font twice as large as that of the composer—and in modish lower-case red too. So who was Julius Isserlis, I wondered, and what else had he recorded? The answer to the second part of the question was that he recorded nothing else. In recent times his grandson Steven has contributed online to the question of this Scriabin disc and it has generated some very fruitful background. Uneven though this Scriabin recording may be—he was in his mid-70s after all—it’s an invaluable souvenir of the man whom Scriabin himself had recommended for an American tour before the First World War.
Isserlis was born in the town of Kishinev, then in Russia, in 1888. He studied successively in Kiev and Moscow—the piano under Safonov, no less, at the ripe old age of ten, and composition under Taneyev. In 1907 he travelled to Paris to have lessons with Charles-Marie Widor, and then returned to Russia to teach in Odessa. In the post-Revolutionary Soviet Union Isserlis’ life was made difficult but he secured a position as a kind of roving musical ambassador, moving to Vienna. History caught up with him in 1938, and he decamped to London where he performed and broadcast, eventually dying in 1968.
His oeuvre for his own instrument is performed by Sam Haywood who has made his own editions of much Isserlis’ music. This I would characterise as old fashioned in the best sense, full of charm and idiomatically laid out. There is a slightly melancholic turn of phrase now and again but this is leavened by some appealingly fanciful turns of phrase. The Ballade in G minor is a kind of memorial to Taneyev who died in 1915 and seems to have been a most important figure in Isserlis’ musical development. The E flat minor Ballade is more effusive and there are some very ardent paragraphs redolent of Chopin. It’s a shame that three of the ten Op 2 Preludes seem to be inaccessible in the Moscow State Library—one would have thought a more generous attitude would have been forthcoming for so eminent an alumnus. Despite this sorry state of affairs the remaining seven offer brief but sharply etched characterisation in the late nineteenth-century romantic style; lyric, warm, succinct, songful, melodious, delightful.
There’s chinoiserie in the Prelude exotique and virtuoso froth in the Toccata in fourths, whilst the Medtner-like title of Skazka actually offers instead some Ravelian dapple. His wit is to be savoured in the first of the three Klavierstücke whilst indigenous Russian gloom is evoked in the Souvenir russe. In the six brief Memories of Childhood he brings some folkloric material to bear, and there’s a startling Petrouchka moment in the fifth, called Marionettes. One of the most beautiful of all these pieces is the plaintively-titled Warum? Small, yes, but perfectly crafted. Seven Isserlis joins Haywood to perform his grandfather’s Ballade in A minor which was dedicated to Casals. It’s the longest single movement at nearly nine minutes and is highly effective.
Haywood, fortunately, isn’t tempted to make more of these pieces than is wise. He plays them 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.