Young Sheku Kanneh-Mason Lives up to His Billing

CanadaCanada Cassado, Beethoven, Shostakovich: Sheku Kanneh-Mason (cello), Isata Kanneh-Mason (piano). Vancouver Playhouse, Vancouver, 3.12.2017.  (GN)

Cassado – Suite for solo cello
Beethoven – Sonata No.2 in G minor for Cello and Piano Op.5 No.2
Shostakovich – Sonata in D minor for Cello and Piano Op.40

After winning the BBC Young Artist’s Award in 2016 and with a Decca recording contract in hand, it was only a matter of time until the long fishing rod of Leila Getz and the Vancouver Recital Society placed 18-year-old British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason on stage here. An additional treat was seeing him perform with his sister Isata, three years his elder. There could be few more riveting experiences than witnessing the strength, passion and assured virtuosity in a cellist so young. Even more important was how much love and feeling he expressed for the music he played, never shying from nuance and lyrical depth, and supported to a tee by his sister.

The most unusual work on the programme was the cello suite by Gaspar Cassado (1897-1966), a renowned Spanish cellist/composer who might be best recalled from his Vox recordings of the Bach Cello Suites and various romantic concertos in the last decade of his life. Cassado did not actually get to perform this suite; it was left for János Starker to champion the work later, along with the Kodály Unaccompanied Cello Sonata and other technically-formidable pieces that now bear the Starker imprint. The form of the suite definitely mimics Bach – an opening prelude plus (Spanish) dances – but there are technical challenges that remind one of Kodály as well.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason started this work with tremendous energy, demonstrating whiplash attack and consummate agility, but he soon found affecting musing postures, still strongly purposive but sensitive too. I thought of Starker almost immediately, especially in Sheku’s pliability and sinew of line, though Starker was weightier in tone. The succeeding dances were brought out with great feeling, yet the cellist was again aware of their more wistful countenances, sometimes conjuring up the quiet Spanish ‘spirits’ that lurk just below the music’s surface. One noticed Sheku’s sophisticated fingering in the most taxing passages and his certainty and resilience of line, and it is impossible to forget the white, vibrato-less tone he can selectively coax from the upper register of his instrument. There were a few untamed moments where his eagerness may have got the better of him, and where he tended to ‘charge’ passionate episodes, but that is exactly what youth is about. Some of the dances might have been taken a little more slowly with a greater sense of self-containment, rather than pushing one on top of the other. Nonetheless, the cellist’s unswerving concentration gave the work both unity and dignity.

There is always something touching about seeing young brothers and sisters play together and, yes, there is a violinist in the family as well, Braimah, so a piano trio is already set to go. Here Isata joined Sheku for Beethoven and Shostakovich cello sonatas. Isata’s alert and conscientious pianism seemed to be the objective anchor of the duo, allowing room for Sheku to bring out a greater range of expressive ardour. And what romantic sensibilities he has! But there is still room for the duo to grow: Isata could take on a more expressive role, finding greater tonal colour and variety to play off Sheku’s range of nuance. That said, their account of the Shostakovich was an extraordinarily beautiful rendering – remarkable for artists of this age. Understandably, it was more a youthful, romantic treatment than a fully idiomatic Russian one, and the first and third movements had many examples of lovely tonal radiance and suspending flow. The cellist’s projection was often more lush and sensual than one might expect, perhaps aiming towards the passionate melancholy and yearning of César Franck or Gabriel Fauré more than the characteristically inwardly-burning fabric of the composer. Exuberant thrust and motion distinguished the second movement Allegro but, again, it would be difficult to say that the composer’s caustic underpinning stood out. Still, it was distinguished playing on its own terms: the cellist has a wonderful ability to combine tightness in articulation with flexibility of utterance.

The Beethoven sonata was superb in its more driving, passionate moments – revealing just how musically ‘together’ brother and sister can be – but Sheku tended to focus on romantic adornment a little too much in the lyrical passages, slowing the work down and compromising its line to a degree. Of course, overthinking a work is a normal peril of youth and better than not thinking at all; indeed, one recalls that Jacqueline du Pré did exactly the same thing. The duo’s energetic and inspired response to the finale was redeeming. The encore was a loving performance of ‘Deep River’ by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.

Let me emphasize what a feast this all was. It would be difficult to think of a young cellist in recent times who has brought such strength and splendour to the instrument. And the creative force within the Kanneh-Mason family is something one can only marvel at.

Geoffrey Newman

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