United Kingdom Glinka, Shostakovich, Mussorgsky/Ravel – A Fresh Take on Shostakovich: Sheku Kanneh-Mason (cello), James Mayhew (artist), London Mozart Players / Jonathan Bloxham (conductor). Fairfield Halls, Croydon, 13.2.2022. (CC)
Glinka – Ruslan and Lyudmila: Overture (1842)
Shostakovich – Cello Concerto No.2 in G, Op.126 (1966)
Mussorgsky/Ravel – Pictures at an Exhibition (1874, orch. 1922)
It has only been a couple of days since Semyon Bychkov conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a performance of the Mussorgsky/Ravel Pictures (review click here); here is another one, this time with a twist: a live artist creating pictures to Mussorgsky’s Pictures in time with the music (therefore, sometimes at astonishing speed). It was so effective it pretty much eclipsed the advertised main event: Shostakovich’s rarely heard Second Cello Concerto in the hands of Sheku Kanneh-Mason. And all to a packed-out Fairfield Halls.
First, though a refreshing, zippy performance of the famous overture to Glinka’s opera Ruslan and Lyudmila. Bracingly fast, it had a lightness that suited the music (there were only two double basses and four cellos). Glinka, the ‘father of Russian music’, set the scene in just a few minutes, but perfectly.
Shostakovich’s Second Concerto sits in the shadow of the First: and Kanneh-Mason is closely associated with the First, given it is the piece which won him BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2017. After his Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto No.1 in January 2020 at this venue (review click here), expectations were of course high. Shostakovich’s Second Concerto was dedicated to, and premiered by, Mstislav Rostropovich, whose performances dominate the catalogue: the Boston performance with Ozawa or the absolutely electric live 1966 performance with the BBC SO under Colin Davis (released on BBC Legends). It’s a lot to live up to, and it says a lot that Kanneh-Mason’s reading held immense power, effectively dispelling memories of other interpreters. All the more impressive as he referred to the relatively short timeframe he had for getting to know the music in a pre-performance discussion with conductor Jonathan Bloxham. The talk (the ‘fresh take’ aspect of the concert) illustrated with projected music examples, gave the audience ‘markers’ to listen out for, from the percussion thwack and cello duo of the first movement to the folk tune of the second movement (a street song from Odessa) and beyond.
The performance itself was gripping, Kanneh-Mason hyper-expressive in the ruminative opening against shadowy strings. His high register is remarkably secure (it needs to be in this piece); his cantabile is taut, which means there is no space for unnecessary emotion, while at other points the music positively danced. The second movement, a scherzo, was brilliantly gestural, Shostakovich’s glissandos enjoyed for all they were worth. The finale is remarkable too, two horns with the composer’s outrageous glissando fanfares against side drum, taken up later in the movement to terrifying effect by the soloist.
In its use of self-quotation (including that of the First Cello Concerto), Shostakovich’s Second Cello Concerto becomes Janus-headed: it looks back to Shostakovich’s previous output while looking forward to his very late works: there are passages in the finale that seem to link directly to the 1971 Symphony No.15, some five years later. There is one cadential figure that Shostakovich uses near the end which perhaps Kanneh-Mason could have lingered a touch more over, and perhaps the more disturbing depths of the score will be revealed to him over subsequent immersion and performance – but what a privilege to hear this piece performed with such confidence. Its technical demands are huge, and Kanneh-Mason triumphed over each and every one.
One encore, and a most satisfying one: a Bach chorale arranged for string orchestra.
Throughout the first half, a screen projected the title of the concert with a picture of Kanneh-Mason. That screen then became a canvas as artist, author, illustrator and ‘live art performer’ James Mayhew. This article (click here) helpfully shows the original Hartmann paintings Mussorgsky drew on, and there were inevitably some parallels. But what impressed with Mayhew’s way was how he captured the essence of the music, often timing the end of a painting to the split-second with the close of the music before embarking on the next. No Bychkov-like gaps here, either: Bloxham’s reading powered straight through, allowing the ‘Great Gate’ to emerge as properly climactic. While the woodwinds of the BBC SO a couple of nights ago were more characterful, there was no doubting the beauty of ‘Bydlo’ or the orchestral virtuosity of the ‘Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks’.
One hopes that Mayhew’s art is retained and exhibited so that it gains a life of its own. The whole experience was positively magical. Throughout, Jonathan Bloxham showed himself a conductor of note. Himself a cellist, his rapport with Kanneh-Mason was beyond doubt. He brought much character to the Mussorgsky/Ravel, and much accuracy to the Glinka.