Steven Isserlis is one of the leading international cellists. He plays a wide range of repertory and is noted for using gut strings and a great deal of vibrato. He is the grandson of composer and pianist Julius Isserlis and can trace his family tree back to connections with both Karl Marx and Felix Mendelssohn.
Isserlis was born in London on December 19, 1958. He spent most of his teenage years (1969-1976) at the International Cello Centre as a pupil of Jane Cowan, who required her students to read Goethe's Faust to better understand Beethoven and memorize Racine to know the sound of the language when playing French music.
Isserlis performs the major cello repertory from before Bach to current times. When he plays Classical- or Baroque-era works, he is likely to do so with period instrument ensembles. He uses his own cello (sometimes with a slight change in setup) on such occasions rather than a Baroque cello. However, he often practices for such concerts with a Baroque or Classical bow to get an idea of the likely phrasing and articulation.
One of the most famous late 20th century works for cello and orchestra, John Tavener's The Protecting Veil, was written for Isserlis, and he gave its first performance in London in 1989, its American debut in Boston in 1993, and recorded its first release, on Virgin Classics, an album that won a Gramophone Award. In 1992, he received the Piatigorsky Artist Award, and in 1993 the Royal Philharmonic Society's Instrumentalist of the Year Award. Other composers who have written new music for Isserlis include Wolfgang Rihm, Elizabeth Maconchy, Howard Blake, Thomas Adès, and Robert Saxton.
He has increased his teaching activities and gives master classes at the Manchester Cello Festival, and since 1997, when he succeeded Sandor Végh as artistic director of the International Musicians Seminar in Cornwall, England, Isserlis has taught and given master classes there annually. He has also written several books and short stories for children; the short stories were set to music by Anne Dudley.
Isserlis was an exclusive artist on the Virgin Records label, going back to the days when it was a large independent company, and continued with it for several years after it was acquired by EMI. He later worked with BMG Classics, RCA Red Seal, and BIS. He has recorded the Elgar concerto, Britten's Cello Symphony, Bloch's Schelomo, and Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations, which he played in the composer's original version, and received wide acclaim for them. His 2007 Hyperion recording of the Six Bach Cello Suites was widely acclaimed and won the Gramophone Award for Best Instrumental Recording. In 2019, he can be heard with Mustonen performing the works of Shostakovich, Kabelevsky, and Prokofiev.