In Cardiff, Sheku Kanneh-Mason gives Schelomo a new life

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Berlioz, Bloch, Sibelius: Sheku Kanneh-Mason (cello), Philharmonia Orchestra / Jukka-Pekka Saraste (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 25.2.2023. (PCG)

Sheku Kanneh-Mason

Berlioz – excerpts from Romeo and Juliet
Sibelius – Symphony No. 1 

You have to hand it to Sheku Kanneh-Mason: the man is a workaholic. Right after this performance of Bloch’s Schelomo in Cardiff, he was heading back to London for no fewer than four events in one day with the Philharmonia in London, before yet another repeat performance in Canterbury the day after. While not quite the ‘tour’ that the Philharmonia had seemed to announce, it was still a formidable workload, especially with a piece that is, if anything, more strenuous for the soloist than your average cello concerto.

At the time of Ernest Bloch’s death in 1959, his reputation as a pioneering beacon of modern music stood high. But despite the release in recent years of excellent recordings of his output, his star seems to have steadily waned ever since. Today, Schelomo is almost the sole representation of his oeuvre performed with any regularity. It is hard to see precisely why this has happened. Maybe the critical opinion that his music was too redolent of Hollywood film epics rankled (although most of his early romantic output so condemned was written well before that style had even become established). It is a mystery why such parallels should be still the subject of suspicion – in an age which has welcomed the work of his contemporaries such as Korngold back onto the concert platform. Maybe there is a hard core of modernism in his music which militates against popularity; even the opening chords of Schelomo clash with each other in a manner which in any other hands would sound abrasive in the extreme, rather than as here lushly luxurious.

Or maybe cellists simply find the extensive and demanding writing too much like hard work. This Hebraic Rhapsody does not exclusively showcase them, but allows the massive orchestra its full head in places. Be that as it may, we are unlikely ever to encounter a more emotional and heartfelt response to the music than in a performance like this. Kanneh-Mason is not afraid to allow the music to soar romantically and to groan in abjection, and even to marginally bend the pitch in the closing bars to achieve a sense of oriental mysticism. His glorious tone never gets drowned even by Bloch’s most strenuous passages of orchestration, and Jukka-Pekka Saraste did not pull any punches.

As an encore, Kanneh-Mason played an arrangement of Joseph Parry’s partsong Myfanwy, a tribute to Wales which brought an instant sigh of recognition from the audience. Let me note that this was his own arrangement of the tune, as I have learned from a review of a concert in Boston, where he had made his debut earlier this month. This goes to explain the somewhat disconcerting alteration to the final line of the melody, which loses a bar, and the wholesale removal of Parry’s original and sometimes bewildering harmonies. I need not say that the Cardiff audience wallowed in the sheer beauty of the cellist’s delivery of the lyrical line, and roared their approval at the end.

After the interval, Saraste gave a performance of the Sibelius First Symphony. It was dramatic in the extreme, and bathed in glorious light throughout – no hint of the Finnish gloom that was to haunt the later symphonies. The players responded with headlong enthusiasm to Saraste’s whirlwind tempi, and even the growling basses and brasses had a decidedly defiant edge to their playing. Sadly, the Cardiff audience had imported their customary influx of colds and coughs, and that disturbed the serene beauty of Mark van der Wiel’s opening clarinet solo (although I have heard worse in pre-pandemic days).

Before Schelomo, Saraste and the orchestra performed what were described as ‘excerpts from Romeo and Juliet’. It is not uncommon now to give the purely orchestral movements of Berlioz’s lengthy ‘dramatic symphony’ shorn of their vocal elements, consisting of five sections of score. But what we had here were just two: the ‘Love Scene’ (without the atmospheric choral opening) and then, out of dramatic order, Romeo’s solo scene which leads to the Capulets’ ball. This sequence was quite a good pairing, but the effect was largely lost because the writer of the programme note had clearly not been informed of what the orchestra was actually going to play. There were no titles for the sections, no explanation of what the music was depicting – worst of all, of a long and awkward silent pause at the end. At least some in audience were clearly expecting the ‘Queen Mab Scherzo’ to which Gavin Plumley had actually referred in the booklet notes. In the circumstances, too, the performance lacked the dramatic involvement so evident elsewhere. The balcony scene relies for its atmosphere on the exchanges between the lovers. Here it seemed purely melodic rather than anxious. And the distant but dramatically important rustling tambourine during Roméo seul (which heralds the commencement of the ball) was almost inaudible. The return of Romeo’s theme at the climax of the entertainment, when he first sees Juliet, was blared out by the trombones to an extent that nearly obliterated the dance rhythms in the strings. This should have been an exciting beginning to the concert, but it rather missed fire.

I was pleased to note that audience attendances at St David’s Hall keep the increased numbers evident since the end of pandemic restrictions. And that despite the unfortunate coincidence of a pivotal Wales-English rugby match the same evening just down the road; that meant not only the disruption of public transport but also the extreme scarcity of parking. I spoke to one couple who had made a point of driving into the city early in the morning specifically in order to attend this concert. Their dedication was rewarded with some superlative music making. They do not seem to have been the only members of the audience who had gone to such lengths: the bar before the concert was crowded with those who had abandoned their cars and travelled in by train and bus a full hour before the performance began.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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