Friday night a crowded Jordan Hall witnessed the Boston debut of Sheku Kanneh-Mason, cello, together with his sister, Isata Kanneh-Mason, piano. While he headlined, her star shone equally for the Celebrity Series of Boston.
The Kanneh-Mason family first came to my attention some four years ago, thanks to the internet. The video of six of the seven siblings performing Monti’s Czardas [HERE] crossed my horizon with great joy and delight. Then of course with Sheku Kanneh-Mason winning the 2016 BBC Young Musician competition and performing at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle (the broadcast of which spawned the hashtag #cellobae the world over), he is very much in the ascendant. He is at risk of being de-throned, though, by his own younger sister, a cellist who in an interview I once read took it as her challenge to be the better cellist than her brother! As for Isata, she has already launched a successful musical career and is gaining global traction. Truly, this is a constellation of talent to observe carefully.
Beethoven based his Variations in F, op. 66 on a theme sung by Papageno in Mozart’s Magic Flute. These variations begin as decidedly Classical music, as typical of this composer’s early period work. After the Allegretto theme, played with Mozartean grace, the first variation is for piano solo; throughout the remainder, each instrument takes lead and voices orbit one another. Affect changes to include rough playfulness and bird calls. These variations, often overlooked in favor of Beethoven’s sonatas for cello and piano, became in this performance a potted history of fifty years of music in one composition; I even heard anticipation of Brahms’s first cello sonata here. The playfulness returned at end. The Kanneh-Mason siblings gave an assured reading of the music,meeting the technical demands with poise and aplomb.
The program jumped forward some one hundred and seventy years to Lutosławski’s Grave (Metamorphoses for cello and piano). A memorial to the Polish musicologist and Debussy specialist, Stefan Jarociński, the music begins, cello solo, with the opening four notes of Pelléas et Mélisande. From this atmospheric start, the music expands to cover manifold quadrants of soundscape, and requests both cello and piano move beyond the sphere of easy comfort. What shone through in this performance was the sheer beauty, in all of its forms.
The combination of beauty and challenge continued with Samuel Barber’s Sonata for cello and piano, op. 6. Composed in 1932 for fellow Curtis Institute student, and friend, cellist Orlando Cole, this three-movement sonata quickly entered the canonical repertoire. Already the composer’s American Romanticism is manifest, and the idiom is unique, unmistakably identifiable. Continuing with the theme of musical homages, this sonata looks back to Brahms’ second cello sonata, strengthening ties across this first half. For all the lushness of the melody, there is intensity and variation here: gruff articulation, puzzled but also puzzling interrogations of harmony and interplay between lines, at times expressed anger melds with evident frustration in this music. The Adagio is legato and meditative, then a playful, scampering scherzo. The concluding Allegro appassionato has a cinematic quality to it, which I heard more than annotator Connor Buckley’s reference to the 17th-century forlane dance. From the chaos of ideas and emotions compacted into this piece swirls out a highly-crafted band of musical light beating back against silence. Sheku and Isata Kanneh-Mason captured the breadth and depth of Barber here.
The players devoted the second half to Rachmaninoff’s Sonata, op. 19. I have long considered this one of the most challenging works in the cellist’s repertoire, not so much for the technical difficulties it presents (which are numerous) but for the musical ones. Pitfalls for lesser mortals abound and the temptation is to peak in intensity and volume too soon; carefully stacked dynamics are key, as well as a deep understanding of one’s own potentialities as a performer. These musicians are no lesser mortals. We heard a carefully considered, brilliantly executed chamber music performance across all four movements of the sonata. Most stunning was the recapitulation in the first movement, here rendered as the dream of a memory.
To this well-wrought selection, both musicians brought insight and joy, brilliance and understanding. Sheku Kanneh-Mason performed with a richness of tone, a wide swathe of affect and nuance, and a maturity of understanding. Isata Kanneh-Mason encompassed a gamut of touch and color, bringing forth inner lines and subtle beauty with an understated elegance, seamlessly alternating between accompanying and leading voices.
The Kanneh-Masons encored with appropriate seasonality in their own arrangement of Gustav Holst’s English carol, “In the bleak midwinter.” Playful variations abound in this music which recalls the Handel-Halvorsen Passacaglia and is anything but bleak. The curious may gaze upon a prior recording of this short delight HERE
Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College. He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra