United Kingdom BBC PROM 46 – Dorothy Howell, Elgar, Knussen, Weinberg: Sheku Kanneh-Mason (cello), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 22.8.2019. (CS)
Dorothy Howell – Lamia (Henry Wood Novelties: world premiere, 1919)
Elgar – Cello Concerto in E minor Op.85
Knussen – The Way to the Castle Yonder Op.21a
Weinberg – Symphony No.3 in B minor Op.45 (Proms premiere)
It was pretty clear who and what the capacity Proms audience had come to see and hear. Sheku Kanneh-Mason received a rapturous reception when he walked onto the Royal Albert Hall platform to perform Elgar’s Cello Concerto with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (with whom he has recorded the piece with which he won the BBC Young Musician of the Year contest in 2016 Shostakovich’s First Concerto).
Despite the clamour, Kanneh-Mason’s demeanour was self-effacing and composed. He did not seem troubled by the venue, occasion or by the historical musical memories which dwell in the Hall. This was to be an introspective performance, restrained and refined rather than emotionally exuberant, and complemented by precise, sensitively balanced playing by the CBSO. No heart-on-the-sleeve Romanticism or sentimental agonising for this young man who, though still a student at the Royal Academy of Music, has competed on Britain’s Got Talent; performed at the BAFTAs, twice; been the subject of a BBC documentary; signed a major recording contract with Decca, and topped the UK classical albums chart; won the Male Artist of the Year and the Critics’ Choice Award at the Classic BRIT Awards. Oh yes, and played at a Royal wedding.
And now, he’s performed the Elgar Concerto at the Proms. Is this over-exposure? While one could not but admire the beauty of Kanneh-Mason’s playing – the sweetness of his tone, the confident essays to the cello’s peaks, the sure intonation and lyrical double-stopping, the combination of lightness and focus in the hurtling staccatos of the second movement – my first thought when the last chord of the Concerto rang, perhaps rather meanly, was he won’t play it like that in ten years’ time. Of course, this is an interpretation in progress; it’s only natural that a musician’s response to a work, and the way that they communicate this, will develop over time. And, it’s undoubtable that Kanneh-Mason has the skill, talent and musicianship to become a formidable cellist, with a striking ‘star’ quality. But, at this point in time, I’d suggest that Kanneh-Mason is at the very first stage of that journey: he can play the Concerto beautifully; whether he yet knows what he wants to communicate is another matter.
The Moderato was long-breathed and even, but while this still contemplativeness was touching, I missed some nuance in the inflection of the rhythmically repetitive theme, such as might reveal the tension beneath the surface. The ff sostenuto passages did not really dig deep into the cello’s tone or project it outwards. And I wanted more freedom, a spontaneity of feeling that derives from stringendos that press forward, ritardandos that tug back, in a truly physical ebb and flow – as in the cantabile interruptions, both yearning and confident, of the second movement’s leggierissimo scurrying, which here seemed to need more space, and the recitative-like section at the start of the Finale. In this final movement, the main theme was rather little genteel, fluid and relaxed but I longed for more bite, for the searching rises to be fuelled by urgency, for the falls to find that C-string’s gritty resonance.
Kanneh-Mason’s restraint was most effective in the Adagio which was strikingly eloquent, and here the CBSO played with telling sensitivity, swelling with full, dark tone, revealing both the shadows and the warmth. Kanneh-Mason found the same spirit of ambiguity in a thoughtfully chosen encore: one of Mieczysław Weinberg’s 24 Preludes for solo cello. Here, finally, was music which spoke of an inner life and spiritual imagination.
After the interval, there was rather more space at the back of the Arena, and a scattering of red velvet chairs were visible around the auditorium. Those who left after they’d had what they’d come for missed the best of this Prom, though. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla displayed absolute commitment to each of the works which completed this inventive and thoughtful programme, and she communicated this with, by turn, swirling arm gestures and micro-precision flicks of her baton to the equally dedicated and determined CBSO.
Each half of the concert began with a short orchestral work which showcased the CBSO’s coloristic diversity and the narrative currents that it can conjure. Dorothy Howell is not a name that trips off the tongue, but her short symphonic poem, Lamia, composed when she was the same age as Sheku Kanneh-Mason, was introduced to the Proms by Sir Henry Wood in 1919 and by 1940 it had been performed seven times; it re-appeared at the RAH more recently, in 2010. It’s a beautiful work: the musical movement is fluid – as befits the tale of Lamia, the serpent-turned-woman who, in her serpent state can send her spirit wherever she wishes – and the orchestration is fresh and lovely. One can hear the voices of Ravel and of Richard Strauss (to which a 1919 reviewer, somewhat denigratingly, added the influence of Granville Bantock, in the subject matter, form and promotion of pictorialism over spirituality – I’d prefer to detect a Pre-Raphaelite aroma à la Arnold Bax).
Gražinytė-Tyla’s animated illumination of Keats’ mythical account of Lamia’s bewitchment of the Corinthian youth, Lycius, and their subsequent love and tragedy, was restless and richly imagined, throbbing with emotional vigour. The woodwind were especially seductive – the flute slithered and fluttered seductively, the oboe sang a gracious song of love – while the body of string sound was silky and full, and the horns and brass injected, by turn, notes of triumph and peace, and undercurrents of tension. Gražinytė-Tyla whipped a storm of passion and rode the crests of love with tenderness, before guiding the CBSO into the final subdued and sombre reminiscences of a love lost.
If sincerity marked the first half of the concert, then the second was tinged with satire, though a more playful kind than Shostakovich’s biting sarcasm. Oliver Knussen’s The Way to Castle Yonder is a ‘pot pourri’ from the composer’s opera, Higgelty Pigglety Pop!, which Knussen described as ‘a theatrical requiem’ for his collaborator Maurice Sendak’s dog, Jennie. Again, the ‘story-telling’ was enchanting and Gražinytė-Tyla and her players relished the eye-popping orchestral palette, pastiche and parody, and musical quotations, but did not allow the circus-band imitations and such-like to overpower the delicacy of Knussen’s fantastical dog-world-view depictions.
The real revelation for this listener, though, was the Third Symphony of Mieczysław Weinberg, a composer whom Gražinytė-Tyla has championed (the CBSO recently released a recording of Weinberg’s second and twenty-first symphonies on the Deutsche Grammophon label). The Symphony No.3 is in a sense Weinberg’s Shostakovich Fifth: it was a work that was designed to ‘appeal’ and ‘satisfy’, written as it was during the Stalinist ‘anti-formalist’ years. It’s a perfect ‘fit’ for Gražinytė-Tyla, driven as it so often seems by the spirit of dance: I’m sure that both of the conductor’s feet at times lost contact with the podium as she sought to lift her players air-borne. But, she also conveyed the expanse of the opening Allegro, effectively balancing light and shade, and drawing out the lyricism of the writing – from the gentle opening outpouring of first clarinet and then violins, to the cello’s warm folk-derived second subject which generates heated orchestral foraging. The imitative writing and the strings’ unison racing against brass staccatos were taut and thrilling. Throughout the ‘classical’ structure of the work was transparent, though never made to feel reactionary.
The Allegro giocoso charmed initially, courtesy of the oboe’s graceful mazurka, accompanied by strings’ cheeky pizzicatos: flute and horn, and then trumpet, intervened to show they could be just as perky and witty. But, like the preceding Allegro, the shadows deepened: the scurrying became more frenetic; the strings climbed higher up their taut lower strings; the dance whirled and whizzed; the contrapuntal arguments became denser and more daring. The scherzo disappeared eerily, leading to an Adagio which was soulful and direct; at times quite raw. The strings’ wistful elegy sang from the heart; here was the beautiful pathos of the cello Prelude we had heard earlier in the evening. The close reached into a despair which was brushed brusquely aside by the pounding timpani and brass fanfares: the flags were flying brazenly at the start of the Finale, though irony quickly tempered the Stalinist self-congratulation: bitterness and aggression flavoured the jamboree and the ending suggest less triumph and more a teeth-gritting forbearance.
Despite the trials and tribulations that Weinberg endured, there is confidence and imaginative flair in this music; and there was faith, fidelity and verve in the CBSO’s honest commitment to Weinberg’s symphony.
This Prom is available on BBC iPlayer for 28 days and will be broadcast on BBC4 on Sunday 26th August.