United Kingdom Beethoven, Mendelssohn: Isata Kanneh-Mason (piano), London Mozart Players / Stephanie Childress (conductor). Cadogan Hall, London, 26.6.2021. (CC)
Beethoven – Symphony No.2 in D, Op.36 (1801/2)
Mendelssohn – Piano Concerto No.1 in G minor, Op.25 (1830/1)
Two performances in one day to accommodate social distancing meant a choice of 4pm (this review) and 7.30pm events at the Cadogan Hall. The concerts showcased the stunning young pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason, whose recent Summertime disc for Decca was so stimulating in programming and so superb in execution. She was joined by the London Mozart Players under Stephanie Childress (currently Assistant Conductor of the St Louis Symphony through the 2021/22 season).
After a plethora of Beethoven Second Symphonies in the recent Khachaturian International Competition in Yerevan, Armenia heard over the internet, it was so refreshing to hear the piece in concert. And this was a superbly wrought account under Childress’s eloquent, clear direction. The beautifully balanced winds of the first movement’s introduction boded well, while the contrast to the Allegro was viscerally made. The odd ragged edge could hardly disturb this carefully structured account, full of life (as the Allegro con brio marking instructs). Perhaps antiphonal layout for the violins would have sealed the deal – there are sufficient occurrences of interactions between first and second violins for this to be effective, both in the first and, particularly, the third movements.
The second movement is a Larghetto but notated in 3/8 so there is a challenge to find the right flowing tempo. Childress’s reading was a model of decorum, a flowing three in a bar. Again, the odd ragged edge (high strings not completely together) detracted slightly, made up for by the fast, punchy Scherzo and its simply beautiful Trio. The finale was notable for Childress’s awareness of Beethoven’s harmonic darkenings, adding significant depth to the reading.
But it was Isata Kanneh-Mason’s performance of Mendelssohn’s First Piano Concerto that was most memorable. Online publicity seemed to imply that the order of works was reversed – the concerto first; but this worked better.
I am not normally one to comment on clothing, but Kanneh-Mason’s glittering green trouser suit did seem to mesh visually with her sparkling finger work in Mendelssohn’s G minor Concerto. This was a performance of the very highest echelon – Kanneh-Mason’s technique is perfect for Mendelssohn’s lightness and sheer velocity, while the second subject was a thing of great beauty in itself. There is an understanding of Mendelssohn’s mode of utterance here that is entirely congruent with the way Kanneh-Mason nails the atmosphere of each piece in that Summertime album, with music from Beach to Barber, from Copland to Coleridge-Taylor. There is a musical intelligence at work here that is most impressive.
The singing cello lines of the slow movement were simply beautiful, as was the sound Kanneh-Mason drew from her piano. An oasis of instrumental song, this sat in perfect balance to the high jinks of the finale, that prestidigitation once more on point. Perhaps just a touch more of a ‘laughing staccato’ on the left-hand descents would have sealed the deal, but this was a performance shot through with life. Childress’s work with the orchestra was excellent, not only in the close bond she enjoyed with her soloist, but also in the suave phrasing she extracted from her players in this finale.
This performance was just what we need in troubled times, and to see so many audience members standing at the close was heart-warming – and fully deserved.