IN: Reviews

Isata Kanneh-Mason’s Perspectives


The 27-year-old British pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason may be in the news these days partly for “newsy” reasons, as she is the oldest of seven accomplished Nottingham musicians whose family line is from Antigua and Sierra Leone (“We never set out to produce an orchestra,” says father Stuart.). She recently made serial Celebrity Series of Boston solo debuts, playing Friday night in Meadow Hall on the eye-popping, campus-size Groton Hill Music Center, and on Saturday night at Jordan Hall.

Beyond any novelties of marketing, Isata Kanneh-Mason is the real deal musically: substantial, a developing pianist with ideas, viewpoints, and mature engagement. It’s possible that she might not have, at pace, quite the pearly evenness and even pearliness of so many of her sleek peers — I sat close, perhaps 35 feet away in the bare-wood space, so it took more focus than usual to discern the colors and quiets of her touch. But she presents as more thoughtful and individual than many of them, and her technique is adequate to probably anything.

Late Haydn can be a good test of musical alertness. Kanneh-Mason fully got the off-kilter (I steal from of Connor Buckley’s fine notes) methods in the composer’s Opus 60 sonata. Others miss some of Haydn’s dynamic crankiness and suspenseful play, but not this pianist. A promising start.

The Easter Sonata of Fanny Mendelssohn (also an oldest child, hugely gifted, famously discouraged) is kind of a strange brew. It comprises a lyrical, pretty, somewhat aimless first movement; a Bachian prelude preceding a fugue whose deftness made me remember that at the very same time, 400 miles to the south, Schubert was vowing to “make good the omission” of his contrapuntal lacks; a diluted Mendelssohnian scherzo with too many notes (trying not to mention the superstar brother here with the same problem); and finally a last movement with rumbling, courtesy of a rocking lefthand which shows how well the 22-year-old composer knew the boogie variations in Beethoven Opus 111 and the Diabelli set. A Christian chorale is deployed at the end. Kanneh-Mason did it all proud, negotiating the many springy dotted-whatevers and the busy runs with power and drama. (Online there are more lilting and less static, less chunked performances to consult.)

It’s surprising that the work is not programmed in this day and age; I had never heard it before.

Robert Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood was rendered in lovely hues and tones and put to rest any questions of Kanneh-Mason’s skill in that regard. (Meaning that her technique, also her memory, are altogether at the incomprehensibly high modern level.) Attentive to the mood variety, she distinguished each imaginary scene, affective state, event or friend, or whatever they are. I would like to hear the performance again.

Meadow Hall is an airy high space fitted in yellow pine, slats and blinds and beams and more, not unlike Shalin Liu, and conceived and executed by the same professionals. It is not nearly as clattery bright as it appears it must be; serious attention has been paid to the acoustical details. Sonic decay sounds smooth. If you go, and I strongly urge attendance of any event there you fancy (there’s a larger concert hall as well) — it’s a big facility, visually very striking, every interior vaulting more overhead space than you would expect — I recommend for Meadow sitting in the side balcony toward the front, where you will hear more bloom than on the floor, same as with Jordan Hall, Shalin Liu, Calderwood, even Symphony Hall. The Intelligencer did an extended feature about the music center HERE,

I also would like to hear Kanneh-Mason’s take on Chopin’s Sonata No. 3 again. In it the composer ranges from the cosmos to the drawing room, from waves of almost chromatic chords to ravishing single-line tunes, from relentless thunder to busy motoring home. Each of these shifts surprises. (I overstate, but only a little). Kanneh-Mason managed everything with both force and delicacy, and occasional lefthand emphasis to bring out a usually hidden interior line, in a most solid and very exciting reading.

After the terrific ending of the Chopin the artist encored into more storm: the last prelude of the composer’s set of 24. It begins in full drive, in medias res, and careers relentlessly toward the final, thrilling Ds of hell.

My seatmate had recently heard Kissin. While not trotting out the old insult of “playing music by Steinway,” he did point out that Isata Kanneh-Mason was manifestly more interested in the actual compositions, their ways and mean, than anything else.

Don’t miss her.

David Moran has been an occasional Boston-area music critic for 50 years, with special interest in the keyboard.


2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. I heard her at Jordan Hall. While I disagree with Mr. Moran on a few minor points, like his preference for balcony seats, I very much agree with his judgements, and with the general sense of this perceptive review.

    Two things struck me about the Easter Sonata; how little it resembled anything by the composer’s brother, and how strong were the influences of Beethoven in the first movement, and Mozart in the second. One must recall that it was written in a period of musical turmoil, when the Classical tradition had been unravelled, but the Romantic one had not yet been established, the year of Schubert’s death, and the year after Beethoven’s. I was influenced by the program notes, which mentioned that Fanny Mendelssohn must have been au courant with the avant-garde music of the time, in particular the late sonatas of Beethoven. It was perhaps this association that prevented me from hearing the first movement as aimless, an accusation that was sometimes made of those incomparable masterpieces. They are incomparable, so I won’t try to compare the first movement of the Easter Sonata to them, but it was certainly influenced by them, and may merit a little of the indulgence that they have earned.

    I liked everything, but the Chopin Sonata was the pinnacle, demonstrating that the program was well-constructed. She not only revealed many of its inner beauties, but gave it clarity, shape, and coherence, which is difficult in the Chopin sonatas.

    I said it was the pinnacle, but then there was the encore. A pianist that concludes a program with a dramatic, virtuosic climax has two ways to go with an encore. It can be an absolute contrast; quiet and contemplative, or delicate and beautiful, or naïve and charming. Or it can attempt to go even farther, to heighten the drama even beyond what was previously achieved. The latter course is risky, since the tension that the performer has been raising over the length of the concluding work has been released, and it must be raised again, to an even higher level, in the briefest time. Fortunately Chopin has provided a few works (the Winter Wind étude is another) that serve this purpose well. Here I have another small quibble with the review. The terrible three low D’s that conclude the D Minor prélude may be death-knells, but they are not hellish. What they express as clearly as anything can be expressed in music is absolute, resolute finality. This is another thing that makes this a perfect encore; for when you hear those three low D’s, you truly know that the concert is done, done, done.

    Comment by SamW — October 24, 2023 at 8:24 am

  2. Good to hear from Sam W always. I was alluding to Andre Gide’s famous (evidently not enough) characterization.

    Comment by David Moran — October 24, 2023 at 1:58 pm

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