Review

Sheku and Isata Kanneh-Mason

Marlborough College Concert Series welcomed Sheku and Isata Kanneh-Mason to the Memorial Hall. The two most prominent members of a cross-genre dynasty of musicians, the Kanneh-Masons have graced the stages of the Barbican, Wigmore Hall, Sendesaal, as well as sharing stages with Sir Elton John, Clean Bandit, and appearing on The X Factor and Top of the Pops. This is a family democratising the role of a musician in the twenty first century.

The programme was carefully crafted to display not only the familiarity of both musicians’ dialectics but also their respective instruments; the cello verging on obbligato in Beethoven’s take on Die Zauberflöte, and the musicians weaving their lines together in the fires of Barber’s Sonata for cello and piano, glacial lines of Lutosławski’s Grave, before traversing the Olympian heights of Rachmaninoff’s Cello Sonata

If Lutosławski and Rachmaninoff represent the Apollonian of the evening, Beethoven and Barber more than made up the Dionysian portion. Isata rode the dynamic properties of the ‘Mem’ Steinway like a surfer cresting a wave of pure emotion, carrying us along in her wake. Sheku provided a delicious counterpoint building to a stretto finale which defied anyone not to break into a smile!

Lutosławski represents a journey into a dialectic which substantially redirected the evening. Bringing the cello to the forefront of the programme, Grave created a tonal palate which displayed the dark hues of Sheku’s 1610 Amati to fullest advantage. This brief, single-movement etches out a long accelerando, rising in pitch across both instruments. The synergy between the siblings shone out in the delicate interplay of piano and cello lines. 

The same craft and attention to detail also informed the Barber Cello sonata. Opening with a glow of dying embers, this jewel of a composition quickly blazes back into life, before fading away into a haze of notes.  Barber was a fastidious composer, and notated everything in impeccable detail. It’s a brave performer who can sit back on the score and allow the music to speak for itself, and this is just what the duo did this evening.

Rachmaninoff premiered the Cello Sonata with eminent Russian cellist Anatoliy Brandukov, who had been best man at his wedding. There is a wonderful parallel here: Rachmaninoff spent his teenage years living in a house with Natalya, his future wife, having been unceremoniously kicked out of his teacher’s house for having the temerity to suggest that they might buy a second piano! Brandukov was also a lodger in the Satina household, having recently returned to Russia from Paris. This sense of shared musical upbringing underpins both the composition, and the exegesis this evening.   

The unavoidable minor tenths which warm the piano texture throughout the second movement, and are the bane of those of us with smaller hands than Rachmaninoff, were executed with a stylish effortlessness from Isata, matched by an equally classy cello song.

This evening was more than a duet recital. The intergrality of the conversation passed between Sheku and Isata made the evening a dialogue – not only between the two performers, but a dialogue between them and the audience. Both musicians ‘played’ the crystal acoustics of the Memorial Hall like the third instrument in the line-up; the aching architecture of both the Rachmaninoff and Barber were spun out in a synthesis of interweaving lines. The glöckchen anthiphony of the Beethoven variations rang playfully from the stage, building shards of reverb from the hall like a sculpture.   

It is all too easy, when discussing young artists, to fall into platitudes about fully formed musicianship and maturity. I have no doubt that both of these musicians will continue to grow, and as they do so, will continue to redefine the boundaries of what we consider to be classical music and how it should be consumed; judging by both their playing, and their presentation, they are asking the difficult questions of the music they approach. And I, for one, can’t wait to hear their answers.  

Dale Wills
Academic Music Teacher