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Steven Isserlis on the Bach Cello Suites

Award-winning international cellist Steven Isserlis in conversation with Simon Callow

Johann Sebastian Bach’s six cello suites are among the most beloved and renowned works of classical music. They have been transcribed for 19 different instruments and have appeared in ballet, theatre and film. But for almost two hundred years after they were composed they were largely unknown, until the 13-year-old Catalan cello prodigy Pablo Casals stumbled upon them in a second-hand music shop, fell in love with them and ultimately introduced them to the world. Since then they have acquired a magical aura which continues to attract and fascinate audiences. One could almost say that if the cello were to write music for itself, it would be the Bach cello suites. No other work for solo cello is as broadly expressive, as widely varied, or as native to the instrument itself as Bach’s suites. Through what are on the surface simple dance suites, Bach takes us on a spiritual journey like no other, leading us from joy to tragedy, concluding in jubilation, even triumph.

In December 2021, award-winning international cellist Steven Isserlis came to Intelligence Squared to take us deep into that emotional journey, bringing to bear all his many years’ experience of performing the suites. Drawing on the themes of his new book The Bach Cello Suites: A Companion, he offered his own very personal observations of the music, illustrating his points with extracts from his own recording of the works.

Praise for Steven Isserlis’ The Bach Cello Suites: A Companion

‘In his writing, as in his playing, Steven makes hard work seem effortless. He’s the master of the material, yet always able to make it accessible. In The Bach Cello Suites he explains often difficult technical detail with great joy and humour. For someone like me, who doesn’t know their gavotte from their elbow, it is an absolute treat to be led to this sublime music by such an enthusiastic expert.’ – Michael Palin

‘The book I’ve always wanted: an accessible, eloquent guide to the world’s greatest – and maybe most elusive – pieces of music. And written by the man I’d want to tell me about it. This is such a delight.’ – Derren Brown

‘Steven Isserlis is one of the world’s great cellists, and his recordings of the Bach cello suites in 2007 were critically acclaimed for the integrity of their interpretation … Isserlis produces an illuminating, accessible and detailed analysis of one of Bach’s seminal works. ― The Observer

Striking … This is a book only a performer could have written; only a cellist who has had his hands in the guts of the thing, weighing every semiquaver and stretching out the sinews of each chord and feeling their tension, could take us this close … After all, as Isserlis acknowledges: ‘The truth lies within the music, not in anything outside it.’ ― The Spectator


Speakers

Speaker

Steven Isserlis

Acclaimed cellist, author and broadcaster


Acclaimed cellist, author and broadcaster, who enjoys a  multi-faceted career as soloist, chamber musician and educator. He appears regularly with the world’s leading orchestras, gives recitals every season in major musical centres, devises chamber music programmes, performs with many period-instrument ensembles, plays and writes for children, and works with many living composers. He has written two children’s books, and gives masterclasses worldwide.   
Chair

Simon Callow

Acclaimed actor, writer and director


One of the country’s most celebrated stage and screen actors, best known for his performances in films such as Four Weddings and a Funeral, A Room with a View and Shakespeare in Love. His many books include biographies of Oscar Wilde and Orson Welles, and a highly acclaimed biography of Dickens, Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World. He has written and starred in several one-man plays, including Inside Wagner's Head, based on the life of composer Richard Wagner.

Speakers subject to change.