Isata Kanneh-Mason’s Southbank debut proves to be an adventure of a concert

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Various: Isata Kanneh-Mason (piano). Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 2.12.2021. (CC)

Isata Kanneh-Mason

Mozart – Piano Sonata in C minor, K 457 (1784)
Chopin – Ballade No.2 in F, Op.38 (1829)
Gubaidulina – Chaconne (1962)
Beethoven – Piano Sonata No.1 in F minor, Op. 2/1 (1795)
Rachmaninov – Etudes-Tableaux, Op.39 (1916/17): No.1 in C minor; No.5 in E flat minor
Gershwin – Three Preludes (1926)

This was an evening of surprises, and not particularly because of Isata Kanneh-Mason’s playing. The programme for her Southbank debut concert listed one order of pieces: the website another. What we heard was yet another reshuffle. Kanneh-Mason clearly has a core of followers, and one hopes no-one mistook Chopin for Beethoven, or Beethoven for Rachmaninov.

Still, at least the Mozart remained constant as the opener for the recital. Often preceded by the C minor Fantasy (not a coupling sanctioned by Mozart), the C minor Sonata is dynamic, at times almost Beethovenian (which brings it into alignment with Beethoven’s First Piano Sonata, also on the programme). An eminently musical account, there is still some way to go before Kanneh-Mason’s reading becomes a fully formed account, something that revealed itself within the development; the return to the opening at the recapitulation could have had more structural weight. The Adagio was a proper Adagio, but to take it that slowly needs a profundity to sustain it that currently eludes Kanneh-Mason. The finale, an Allegro assai, was the finest movement, with the syncopations nicely caught (some ornaments could be tidier though).

Chopin’s Second Ballade followed, the opening surprisingly brisk, but phrasing needed more subtlety, and the contrasts, so vital to the structure and character of this piece, were minimised. On the plus side were commendable textural clarity and intelligent pedalling. By some way the most impressive performance of the first half came with Sofia Gubaidulina’s Chaconne, the composer’s first published piano piece. It is a remarkable work, and Kanneh-Mason understands its workings intimately, creating contrasts, finding mystery and power. The chaconne theme contains the total chromatic (in other words, one instance each of the twelve semitones that make up an octave), and the different variations reference a number of composers (Bach, Beethoven, Busoni) plus the odd implication of jazz. This is music Kanneh-Mason is clearly attuned to, finding grotesquerie and real depth, widening her sound envelope by a commendable emphasis on the bass where appropriate.

Post-interval, and to mirror the Mozart that opened the concert, Beethoven’s ‘Genesis’, the Piano Sonata Op.2/1. There was much energy to the accents of the opening Allegro, and a nice feeling of three (as opposed to six) to a bar in the Adagio. This was the highlight of her Beethoven, particularly a moment of magic at the demisemiquaver triplet passage. Interesting that the Trio to the third movement was taken so rapidly – a reflection of Kanneh-Mason’s perceived fluidity of this movement, perhaps. The finale was a proper Prestissimo, its contrasting subject absolutely charming. A far more successful account than of the Mozart.

Rachmaninov’s Etudes-Tableaux are masterpieces of the repertoire. There are nine pieces in Op.39, of which we got two (having been promised five then four). The first, the C minor, Op.39/1 was nicely low-pedal but a touch bass-light; the second, the E flat minor Appassionato Op.39/5 was, in Kanneh-Mason’s hands, a beautifully melancholic Song without Words. More Rachmaninov from her would be welcome, certainly. It was, though, in the Gershwin Three Preludes for piano of 1926 that Kanneh-Mason finally gave us her all, relaxed now, revelling in the swing of the first (and in the sheer energy inherent in repeated notes), and conveying inner part-writing in the second that made that voice sound almost like a shadow, like a ghost of a supporting melody; the fast final Allegro ben ritmato e deciso was unbuttoned and contained some delicious contrasts, perfectly controlled throughout.

One well-chosen encore to this adventure of a concert, the beautiful The Man I Love by Gershwin, arranged by Percy Grainger (which Kanneh-Mason plays on her Summertime album).

Colin Clarke

Leave a Comment