Sheku Kanneh-Mason Brings Grace and Vitality to Edinburgh with the Elgar Cello Concerto

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United KingdomUnited Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival [10] – Stravinsky, Elgar, Ravel: Sheku Kanneh-Mason (cello), Edinburgh Festival Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Ludovic Morlot (conductor), Usher Hall Edinburgh, 17.8.2018. (GT)

Sheku Kanneh-Mason (c) Lars Borges

Stravinsky – Funeral Song

Elgar – Cello Concerto

Ravel – Daphnis et Chloé

The Lithuanian conductor Mirga Gražinyté-Tyla has created a wonderful impression since she took over the reins at the CBSO two years ago allowing a freshness in music-making to this immensely talented midlands ensemble. She masterminded a wonderful concert here in the 2017 Edinburgh International Festival, and many were looking forward to seeing this outstanding young woman conduct an eclectic programme. However owing to her pregnancy, the conductor from Vilnius was replaced by the Frenchman Ludovic Morlot who has been music director of the Seattle Symphony for seven years, and conducted many of Europe’s top orchestras. However, the change in programme allowed the brilliant young nineteen-year-old cello player Sheku Kanneh-Mason to play the Elgar Concerto in his first visit to Scotland and of course to the Edinburgh International Festival.

From the programme, it appeared that we were in for a treat with three pieces embracing late romanticism to impressionism.

Stravinsky’s long-lost piece dedicated to his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov was performed by Gergiev with the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra in 2016 for only the second occasion since the premiere in 1909 by Count Sheremetyev’s Orchestra under the baton of Felix Blumenfeld in St Petersburg. The composer wrote ‘all the solo instruments of the orchestra filed past the tomb of the master in succession, each laying down its own melody as its wreath.’ The work is in the idiom of a dirge and evokes the darkness and harmonies of Rachmaninov in particular, and of Glazunov in its colours. The opening bars on the low strings sounded chilling and deeply Slavic, most akin with Rachmaninov’s The Rock, with the brass and woodwind joining in this dirge there entered more colours, and enveloping a dark atmosphere, and suddenly with the crash on the timpani, it seemed almost anecdotal, and one thought it almost tongue in cheek, certainly this may have been the cause for its disappearance a century ago into the archives of the St Petersburg Conservatoire. The harmonies were similar to pieces by Lyadov or Glazunov, and it all ended rather quietly, not a memorable work, and one might suggest if it were not by Stravinsky, then this probably wouldn’t have been on the programme.

If the absence of Gražinyté-Tyla was to be much regretted, the appearance of the nineteen-year-old cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason ensured a capacity audience. In a short, few months he has attained world-wide celebrity status with his debut album having sales of 100,000 discs worldwide, and notably playing at the recent Royal wedding.

The appearance of the brilliant young cello player brought a breath of youthful freshness to the platform, dressed in a colourful waistcoat and trainers, and a cheerful smile, it was clear that we were in for an interesting evening. This was confirmed in the opening bars with Elgar’s darkly written notes for the cello, and which immediately set the tone, with the wretchedness of the score brought out wonderfully well. Morlot ensured superb support from the orchestra and the emotion of the music was clearly expressed in the soloist’s face, carefully listening to the orchestra exhibiting all the freshness of youth! Of course, the CBSO play this music as if it is their lifeblood; Elgar conducted their first orchestral concert in 1920. In the Lento, the affectation was wonderful, with beautiful phrasing, bringing out all the angst and nobility of the composer’s music. In the brief Adagio, the tempo was brisk and sprightly, whilst on the cello a reflective idiom was adopted, still incredible that this young man is just nineteen, for he has all the maturity of someone twice his age! His technique and musicianship are marvellous, and throughout he communicates with his audience. With the return of the great opening theme from the first movement masterly played, we soon came to the grand and brightly characterized finale. Amazingly, young Sheku Kanneh-Mason looked strangely embarrassed by the huge applause. He is a wonderful musician and surely with the right guidance, he will be become one of the great British musicians in years to come.

Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé was almost an anti-climax to this fine concert, with the presence of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus, at least a guarantee of artistic success was prevalent. In the first scene, the brilliantly colourful writing for woodwind was finely characterized on the flute of Marie-Christine Zubancic and the oboe of Rainer Gibbons. The violins brought all the luxuriant harmonies of Daphnis’s gracious dance, while the invasion of the pirates was immaculately enacted, all so vivid, we could on closing our eyes behold the dancers before us. The conducting of the Frenchman Ludovic Morlot helped bring out the atmospheric harmonies drawing out the colours from the wind sections and graceful lines from the strings and delicate nuances from the harps. The singing of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus gave a magical ring to the ballet music. However, the prolonged length of the complete ballet is perhaps inappropriate for a concert, and it might have better for a theatre production of this Ravel masterpiece and so judge it best; here in the huge spaces of the Usher Hall, it would have been more practical for the orchestral suites to be performed.

In this concert, the best of the music-making was distinctly heard in the first half with the magical performance of Sheku Kanneh-Mason. He is sure to become a regular visitor to Edinburgh in years to come.

Gregor Tassie

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