Every so often, a CD comes along that could be described as what my colleague Anne Midgette has aptly called ‘the ignorant smugness of posterity’. It reminds us that, however self-satisfied we become about our grasp of music’s Western canon, what we know is but the tip of the iceberg. For every composer with whose work we claim familiarity, there are dozens of others whose names are known only to specialists, and an even greater number awaiting rediscovery’ and evaluation.
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 (some of his music is still available from Universal Edition, Vienna) but well worth a fresh look. At the age of nine, Isserlis was sent from his native Kishinev (today’s Chisnau, capital of Moldova) to Kiev and, a year later, on to Moscow, where he studied with the Conservatory’s director, Vasily Safonov, himself a pupil of Leschetizky. The decisive influence, however, seems to have been Tchaikovsky’s favourite pupil, Sergei Taneyev, who took the young Isserlis under his wing. Isserlis won the gold medal on completion of his studies at the Conservatory in 1904. Three years later he travelled abroad to study with Widor in Paris. There he also met Scriabin, on whose recommendation he made his New York debut with the Russian Philharmonic. Returning to Russia, he taught in Moscow before settling in Odessa, where he married. Following the Revolution, in 1923 he was among a small group of musicians allowed to travel abroad, and took his family with him to Vienna, which became their home until the eve of the Anschluss. Engaged for a tour of Britain, within months Isserlis managed to bring his family out from Austria and begin rebuilding his career at the age of 50. Based in London, Isserlis continued to concertize and teach well after the war. He was silenced by Parkinson’s in 1963, from which he died five years later. According to the booklet notes by his granddaughter, Rachel Isserlis, 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. At a 1932 concert in Vienna, Isserlis played four of his own pieces; an Etude, Nocturne and Waltz by Chopin; and Liszt’s Paraphrase on Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and La Campanella.
Three Ballades, two for solo piano and a third for cello and piano, are the largest structures here. Colourful and idiomatically pianistic, while obviously beholden to Chopin, their ‘narrative’ structures generally avoid the mercurial contrasts of mood and tempo characteristic of the Polish master’s Ballades. 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.
The five pieces that constitute Memories of Childhood are charming and atmospheric. While all may not be within the technical purview of early-stage pianists, their musical content should delight the young. The trio of ‘In the Steppes’ quotes the familiar Eastern European folk song used by Tchaikovsky in the finale of the Fourth Symphony. Appropriately enough, ‘Marionettes’ is built around a theme used by Stravinsky in Petrushka.
Generally speaking, Isserlis speaks the tonal language of late Romanticism, with modal inflections from folk song and, on occasion, Debussy. ‘Prelude exotique’, ‘Toccata in Fourths’ (Op 10 Nos 1 and 2) and Russian Dance Op 7 are the most harmonically advanced. There is little evidence of post-war musical influence, and the prevailing air is of nostalgia for Russia, reminiscent of Medtner. Simple ABA structures are predominant in the pieces represented here and, if Isserlis exhibits a compositional weakness, it would be a tendency toward unvaried repetition.
From the information at hand, it is not clear how much more of Isserlis’s oeuvre remains to be explored. Nevertheless, Haywood proves his persuasive advocate. From a technical standpoint, microphone placement seems to have been close and editing perhaps hasty. But this is an important contribution, shedding further light on Russian music of the first half of the twentieth century.