Jeneba Kanneh-Mason comes into her own playing Florence Price’s concerto with Chineke! at the Proms

United KingdomUnited Kingdom BBC Proms 2021 [15] – Coleridge-Taylor, Fela Sowande, Florence Price: Jeneba Kanneh-Mason (piano), Chineke! Orchestra / Kalena Bovell (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 24.8.2021. (CC)

Kalena Bovell conducts the Chineke! Orchestra (c) Mark Allan

Coleridge TaylorThe Song of Hiawatha, Overture; Symphony No.1 in A minor
Fela SowandeAfrican Suite
Florence Price – Piano Concerto in One Movement

It is always marvellous to see the Chineke! Orchestra at the Proms. The band commands a dedicated following – although it was perhaps surprising to see such a high level of empty seats. Nevertheless, this inspired programme yielded many, many joys. Lovely to see the conductor enter with the players – first among equals.

Perhaps best known for Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, the concert began with what might be described as its sister work, The Henry Wadsworth Longfellow-inspired The Song of Hiawatha, full of long-breathed melodies (it is surely impossible not to think of Dvořák with some of them, the Dvořák of the Ninth Symphony of course). All credit to the superb first horn for his beautifully rendered solos (a fine sense of legato from Francisco Gomez). This was a fine, musical account, with Panamanian-American conductor Kalena Bovell bringing in a finely judged accelerando at one point that felt entirely natural.

Fela Sowande (1905-87) is a lesser-known name. His African Suite was written in 1944 (the radio commentary said 1955 for some reason). The music of West Africa meets English pastoral in this fascinating hybrid. The four movements incorporate a variety of melodies (a tune by Ghanaian composer Ephraim Amu in the first movement, ‘Joyful Day,’ for example). The soundworld is identifiably English though (he moved from Nigeria to England although as a boy and teenager he had absorbed much of his native music). The piece, scored for strings (with harp in the tender Lullaby fourth movement), has a light touch; that opening movement bracingly vigorous and with the odd unexpectedly complex harmonic shift and nice rhythmic clash, elements relished by the young Chineke! players.

As the programme note author Kira Thurman says, there is more than a hint of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings about this. Impeccable Proms music par excellence, Much beauty here, and a special word for the violin solos by the orchestra’s leader, Zara Benyounes, each one exquisitely toned and phrased. Bovell balanced tutti string textures with a fine ear, too. A very pleasant 20 or so minutes; Sowende is a fine craftsman; it would be good to know more of his music. Of interest to record collectors (and I do mean those big round black things!) is that the fourth movement, ‘Onipe’, was released on an RCA Living Stereo, Moon, Wind and Stars performed by Morton Gould and his Orchestra. Good to hear it in context here.

But I wonder if I was the only one to come for Florence Price’s Piano Concerto in One Movement (1934). There is already a fine recording of this available on Albany (with Karen Walwyn as soloist and the New Black Music Repertoire Ensemble under Leslie B. Dunner). But the sheer freshness and command of Jeneba Kanneh-Mason’s playing swept all competition aside.

The concerto sat in an attic for some 60 years, only gaining attention when the orchestral parts were put up for public auction. It is a work of long, inspired melodies, wondrous touches of scoring and truly Romantic sweep to the piano writing. Kanneh-Mason is perfectly attuned to Price’s world – her clarity is remarkable, and she projected perfectly (at least to the reviewers’ seats, at the back of the stalls). The sheer command of Kanneh-Mason’s opening statement did rather put Chineke!’s entrance thereafter rather in the shade (which was slightly tentative, too), She has a light touch, too, that is most appealing. The moments of orchestral grandeur glowed from the orchestra, but this performance belonged to the pianist. Although still at music college, it is clear this is a name that will be one to watch.

Jeneba Kanneh-Mason plays Florence Price’s Piano Concerto (c) Mark Allan

A shame there was inter-movement applause in a piece that is in one movement (there’s a reason for the title, it’s all about flow). But how lovely the slow section, an Adagio cantabile, including some ravishing oboe solos from Myfanwy Price. The massive contrast the finale affords is miraculous and impossible not to enjoy, surely, a juba (a dance with African roots). If your foot doesn’t tap, there’s something wrong, and Kanneh-Mason and the orchestra were completely on the ball rhythmically, with myriad wondrous exchanges. I may commit sacrilege and say I prefer Jeneba’s playing to that of her sister, Isata.

(While comparisons of this ilk might seem inevitable, it was rather invited in by Jeneba encoring Coleridge-Taylor’s Impromptu in B minor, a piece included in Isata’s recent Decca album Summertime.)

Incidentally, Florence Price was no mean symphonist – try the Naxos release of her First and Fourth Symphonies with the Fort Worth Symphony under John Jeter. But it was back to Coleridge-Taylor’s First Symphony in A minor. The dates give a clue as to the problematic gestation of the work: 1896, revised 1900 and 1901. Coleridge-Taylor found the finale a real challenge; and yet in this performance all seemed perfectly balanced and well. I believe there is a total of four revisions to that movement. His teacher at the Royal College of Music, Charles Stanford, didn’t like it either, which cannot have helped the composer’s sense of confidence around this. Interestingly, the recording by Douglas Bostock and the Aarhus Symphony on Classico used the score held at the RCM; it would certainly make sense if the present performers had done the same, considering the venue.

The expansive first movement seems to end rather abruptly; the same charge could be laid against the second and fourth movements, too, perhaps. But there are many, many positives, especially in a performance of such obvious affection as this. Bovell had clearly paid much attention to phrasing throughout; her second movement ‘Lament’ (Larghetto affettuoso, based on an African melody, and the composer’s first instance of the integration of Black musical idioms in his work) was deeply, deeply affettuoso (the movement held yet another gorgeous violin solo) before a Scherzo with a nicely tripping theme (again, superb string homogeneity; phenomenal horn playing in the Trio) before the darker finale showed that perseverance pays off. Some lovely brass playing early in the movement, too, the brass acting as one firm, cogent unit. There is one gesture (descending strings leading into a thematic statement) that seems directly linked to Dvořák’s ‘New World’. Throughout, the woodwind section excelled.

Fabulous programming: music performed with the excellence that heartfelt belief in the music brings. There was enthusiastic inter-movement applause (that old chestnut something actually encouraged by the conductor on this occasion, which is more unusual), but that will disturb some people more than others. A great evening: that Florence Price Piano Concerto was the real standout, though.

Colin Clarke

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