Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

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Annette Isserlis

Viola

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Annette Isserlis studied at the Royal College of Music, where she now teaches historical performance on baroque and classical viola. Coming from a very musical family, her siblings Rachel and Steven are also professional musicians.

Why did you decide to play your instrument?

My only instrument was the piano up until I left boarding-school at the age of 16, and Rachel, Steven and I played piano trios, but I’d yearned to play a stringed instrument. My father was an accomplished violinist and my mother a pianist so the viola was the obvious instrument for me to take up at that stage for family chamber-music. In fact I took up the tenor viol at the same time and Francis Baines, my viol tutor, became head of the Early Music Dept at RCM two years later, when I started there, so was responsible for my conversion to baroque viola, although by then I’d met Catherine Mackintosh, who’d introduced me to the delights of period instrument playing.

What’s the funniest or most stressful thing that’s ever happened to you during a performance?

There have been rather too many funny occasions, and I am quite a giggler when things go wrong, which doesn’t help matters.

A notable incident early in my career occurred in a concert at a harpsichord-maker’s house, during which there was a power-cut. Amazingly, the wooden music-stands we were using just happened to have candle-holders attached, so the host produced candles and we carried on. The last movement of Bach’s double harpsichord concerto in C major is a fugue, which entails many bars’ rest for the viola. Whilst waiting for my entry I felt something fall on the back of my hand, which appeared to be an a hank of white hair. Puzzled, I regarded my bow, and to my horror saw that I’d accidentally laid the tip in the candle-flame, and it was now merrily smouldering away. At that minute I realised the time had come to make my entry, but with only a meagre amount of horse-hair left, so it sounded somewhat asthmatic! Regrettably I was seized with uncontrollable giggles, which didn’t help matters, and in the dark, the others didn’t realise what had caused me to lose control until the end of the performance. The bow was a write-off, but luckily wasn’t an expensive one!

Another occasion was in a string quartet concert, when, during the theme and variations of Haydn’s Kaiser Quartet, my bow somehow snagged in the hook of my jacket just before “my” variation, resulting in my having about 3 inches of bow with which to express myself. In fact I had to stop and disentangle it after 2 bars, and collect myself in order to proceed.

If you had to play only one composer for the rest of your career, who would you choose?

It would have to be Bach, although I do adore Purcell as well. Bach for me is the consummate composer from every angle: Sheer accomplishment and output (not even counting all the works that were lost or destroyed) plus the most wonderful harmonic range; rhythmic vitality and aptness; intellect and astounding numerology embedded in his astonishing fugal writing; the range of invention and colours displayed to full advantage in his cantatas, as well as his best-known works: the B minor Mass, Passions, Brandenburgs and gamut of keyboard works, not to mention the violin sonatas and partitas and the cello suites! And notwithstanding all of this, such depth of spirituality and emotion.

If you had not been a musician what do you think you would have done instead?

In fact I was all set to go to an Art college when I left school, and had a place lined up, but somehow at the last minute did a swerve when I realised that my identity felt inside as if I was a musician primarily. I still enjoy drawing when I have time.

What’s your favourite thing to do when you’re not making music?

I tend to have “Enthusiasms”, that last for about 3 years before another one comes along. However my hens have maintained pride of place in my affections since they arrived more than 3 years ago, even though I recently acquired a small woodland, which is a wonderfully therapeutic place to be. Previous projects have included getting a private pilot’s licence, knitting and photography, but my ongoing enthusiasm is for cooking and eating!


As well as teaching historical performance on baroque and classical viola at the Royal College of Music, Annette holds the same post as visiting tutor at the Royal Academy of Music and at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester.
In addition to being a founding member of the OAE Annette was for many years principal viola for Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s English Baroque Soloists, and with these and other eminent period instrument ensembles has travelled, recorded and broadcast extensively. She participates in many chamber-music concerts, attends IMS Prussia Cove Open Chamber Music annually and is a regular member of Sir Andras Schiff’s Cappella Andreas Barca.

Other musical activities include music-arranging and record-producing.

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