Sheku Kanneh-Mason, Isata Kanneh-Mason
Boccherini / Poulenc / Debussy / Brahms
Tonhalle Maag, Zurich, 2018-12-11
Introduction / Artists
The recital featured the British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason (*1999, see also Wikipedia, or see Sheku’s entry at IMG Artists). I had the pleasure of attending an orchestral concert in Zurich with this artist earlier this year, on 2018-03-14.
Let me just quote the biographic notes from that earlier report: Sheku grew up in Nottingham, together with six siblings. He began playing the cello at age 6, and at age 9, he already won his first prizes. Sheku completed his education at the Royal Academy of Music in London, later took several master classes with artists such as Raphael Wallfisch (*1953) and Julian Lloyd Webber (*1951). In 2015, he and his siblings celebrated successes on TV, and together with his sister Isata Kanneh-Mason (*1997, piano) and his brother Braimah (*1998, violin), he founded the Kanneh-Mason Piano Trio.
Sheku Kanneh-Mason plays a cello from 1610 by Antonius and Hieronymus Amati. The members of the Amati family are the inventors of the instruments of the modern violin and related instruments. The other famous, Italian violin makers flourished a century after the Amatis, and later.
As a personal career highlight, Sheku Kanneh-Mason was invited to play at the Royal Wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, on 2018-05-19. He has already had numerous appearances on TV, especially in the U.K.
Isata is the oldest of the seven siblings, now in her postgraduate studies at the Royal Academy of Music in London. She won her first awards at age 10 and 11, and further prizes followed, up to this year, see her Web bio for details. In this recital, Isata Kanneh-Mason played on the Tonhalle’s Steinway D-274 concert grand. The lid was fully open in this recital.
The program consisted of four cello sonatas, covering almost two centuries of this genre, from baroque to romantic, to mid-20th century:
- Luigi Boccherini (1743 – 1805): Sonata for Cello and Basso continuo No.4 in A major, G.4
- Francis Poulenc (1899 – 1963): Cello Sonata, FP 143
- Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918): Cello sonata in D minor, L.135
- Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897): Cello Sonata No.2 in F major, op.99
As expected for just about any chamber music events, the venue (Tonhalle Maag, Zurich) was not sold out. My wife and I had seats on the left side (seats 6 & 7) of row 3 in the parquet.
Luigi Boccherini (1743 – 1805) was a prolific composer—so much that there is confusion about some of his oeuvre: only a fraction of his works appeared under an opus number, the numbering of some works is unclear, the use of a systematic catalog number (such as the Gérard catalog numbering) sporadic. The Gérard catalog lists a total of 29 (known) sonatas for cello and basso continuo by this composer. The performance actually featured the Sonata for Cello and Basso continuo No.4 in A major, G.4, from around 1773, with the following three movements
The organizer fell prey to the above confusion:
- The concert announcement mentioned a “Sonata No.6 in A major for Cello and Basso continuo”
- The concert handout then altered that to “Sonata in A major for Cello and Basso continuo, op.7a/6“, allegedly from before 1770, mentioning two movements “Adagio — Allegro (molto moderato)“—although under that erroneous title, the actual description in the text part addressed the sonata actually played.
The handout also mentions that the artists played an arrangement for cello and piano by the German cellist Friedrich Grützmacher (1832 – 1903)—though it states that Grützmacher’s arrangement only features two movements. The artists played all three movements, and their performance did not match the description of an overly romanticized arrangement.
Right from the first tone, what dominated the performance was Sheku’s solemn, singing cantilena—his pure, clean tone, with totally inconspicuous vibrato. With its rich fiorituras, the movement appeared to sway freely, independent of the underlying meter, leaving time for Boccherini’s ornaments (all written out in the score), except for two minuscule cadenzas at fermatas.
Isata kept her accompaniment totally in the background (despite the open lid on the Steinway!), very simple. If there was anything to criticize in the performance, then it was in the accompaniment—not in the playing, but in the very poor, scarce harmonization of Boccherini’s continuo skeleton. Whether it’s Grützmacher’s or the artist’s own setting, this was too modest: there weren’t any transition notes, counter-movements, let alone ornaments. Boccherini deserved better—even if a Steinway isn’t the ideal continuo instrument. The composer was meticulous about how he wanted the ornamentation in the cello part, but only wrote a rudimentary accompaniment. He left such an apparent imbalance because he was a cellist himself.
I found the accompaniment in the fast movement much better: it was definitely more than the mere skeleton. Yet, in supporting her brother, Isata very carefully stayed in the background also here. Sheku dominated the movement with his highly virtuosic cello part, almost “flying” through all the coloraturas, full of momentum, with very light articulation, and (seemingly) completely effortless. Despite the musical imbalance between the two parts (be it just in the number of notes played!): at all times, there was a very close interaction between the two siblings.
As the annotation indicates: a movement full of serene, lyrical affection, with beautiful cantilenas. Sheku seemed to watch the sound, as it projected into the audience & towards the ceiling, listening to the bright sound of the instrument. He made the cello part sound easy, and the intonation remained flaw- and effortless. Isata’s accompaniment easily, entirely naturally followed the cello, snugly through all of Sheku’s delicate agogics. Here, the accompaniment was richer, the movement had the best musical balance: beautiful music, overall!
I just double-checked: I located the Grützmacher version of the sonata—and that’s definitely not what the artists performed. Grützmacher actually also added numerous alterations to the cello part. The artists stayed close to Boccherini’ original publication, at least in the cello line. For the piano part, one could say that the pianist stayed too close to Boccherini’s rudimentary notation of the accompaniment. Though, that was still the better choice than Grützmacher’s heavily expanded piano score.
Poulenc: Cello Sonata, FP 143
Francis Poulenc (1899 – 1963) wrote first sketches of his (only) Cello Sonata, FP 143 in 1940, while he was in Bordeaux, due to general mobilization. Only in 1948, well after the end of the WWII, Poulenc resumed work on the sonata, upon request of its dedicatee, Pierre Fournier (1906 – 1986), who also premiered the sonata in Paris, together with the composer at the piano. The sonata received mixed comments—many call it “not among the best of Poulenc’s works”. The four movements of the sonata are
- I. Allegro – Tempo di Marcia
- II. Cavatine
- III. Ballabile
- IV. Finale
The Wikipedia article notes that “Each movement is in ternary form, having a contrasting middle section. The piece makes much use of Neo-Baroque and Neo-Classical styles.”
I. Allegro – Tempo di Marcia
Even more than in the Boccherini sonata, the tight interplay between the two siblings was very apparent, throughout the rubato, the constant hesitations, re-accelerations, etc.: Poulenc appears to write short 2- or 4-bar phrases mainly. So, here, the focus wasn’t on big arches, but on alertness, on the lively interaction between the partners. It’s joyful, often joking music, constantly changing in temperament, character, atmosphere—certainly also with ethereal, volatile moments / passages.
Clearly, Sheku Kanneh-Mason has no technical or musical issues with this music! Isata’s piano part was alert throughout, maybe somewhat soft in the touch (certainly never too acute!). I found the performance sensitive, maybe somewhat mellow in character / atmosphere. In my opinion, the piano part could be more acute in accents and articulation, maybe also slightly stronger, up to vigorous. The (musical) balance was better in the lyrical middle part, though.
The movement opened with a beautiful calm, solemn chorale-like introduction, first in the piano, then joined by the cello—all pp, then even ppp on the piano. The cello continues with subtle, delicate, contemplative, totally absorbed singing: how difficult this is in the intonation!
In the middle part, the cello part is blooming in rhapsodic arpeggiando, with vehement motion, highly expressive. Here again, I felt that the piano could easily have been more prominent, more acute.
In the last segment, Isata created a mysterious, hollow, spacious atmosphere. Sheku restrained his playing, mostly leaving the cantilena, the lead to his sister, who again played out her subtle touch, up to the ppp ending.
A moody movement, atmospheric, light-hearted, building momentum in every phrase, then holding for a moment—like a pendulum, it seemed. Even though the impulses appeared to originate in the piano part, Isata was never dominating the performance, never playing more than f. The playing exhibited perfect mutual tuning / coordination, also in character and temperament.
In the two initial, fanfare-like “statements”, Sheku appeared to grab the initiative again. In-between, it was up to Isata to create a momentary, warm and mellow atmosphere, while Sheku was “flying high” in whistling flageolet tones. The subsequent Presto part is virtuosic, requires fast reaction in its rapidly changing tempo, the almost violent eruptions, the surprising moments. Here, both musicians contributed their share of initiative. Isata demonstrated that she, too, is technically superb and has excellent dynamic control. Though, in general, she retained her slender playing, her somewhat mellow touch, demonstrating her abilities in lyrical playing, whenever the music offered an opportunity.
Overall Rating: ★★★½
Claude Debussy: Cello Sonata in D minor, L.135
Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918) wrote his Cello sonata in D minor, L.135 in 1915. It is Debussy’s only contribution to this genre. The sonata has three movements:
- Prologue: Lent, sostenuto e molto risoluto
- Sérénade: Modérément animé —
- Finale: Animé, léger et nerveux
I. Prologue: Lent, sostenuto e molto risoluto
Here now, Isata demonstrated more power on the piano—and in contrast, Sheku played out more subtle, mellow, even matte character traits of his instrument. As the music turned more and more animated, also Isata’s piano part appeared to liven up. The highlights of the movement, though, were in the atmosphere, especially in the subtle, soft parts, culminating in the ppp ending with the most subtle (pppp) cello flageolet.
II. Sérénade: Modérément animé —
A very volatile movement, with constant hesitations, accelerandi, sudden tempo changes, eruptions: very atmospheric, agile, both mellow (where appropriate), as well as alert in the playing—and a compelling performance, perfect in coordination, played out of one single spirit / mind!
III. Finale: Animé, léger et nerveux
An enthralling, virtuosic and agile performance, very convincing. There was perhaps one minor exception: 10 bars after , there is a Molto ritardando, one bar later followed by au movement (= a tempo). The momentary disruption of the musical flow is intended—though here, the transitions weren’t quite as compelling as the rest of the movement. Still, to me, overall, this sonata ended up being the highlight of the evening: congrats!
Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) wrote this sonata in 1886; it was published a year later. The sonata has four movements:
- Allegro vivace
- Adagio affettuoso
- Allegro passionato
- Allegro molto
I. Allegro vivace
The rhapsodic, challenging piano part with its often boiling emotions gave Isata a chance to demonstrate her virtuosic prowess—she did not expose any technical weaknesses. Thanks for repeating the exposition!
True, this music often performed with more power, more of a “steely” touch. Isata’s strengths were more in the lyrical parts, such as in the development part, where her playing was very, very subtle, intimate: excellent! Certainly, she did not over-emphasize the dramatic moments, the big gestures in this movement. It could just as well be that she (deliberately/consciously, maybe also subconsciously) adjust her playing to the character of Sheku’s Amati cello (which isn’t as heavy and full-bodied as, e.g., a typical instrument by Mattio Goffriller).
II. Adagio affettuoso
The artists emphasized the affettuoso nature of this movement: mellow, subtle, especially in the soft moments, where Sheku seemed to follow the sound, as it projected out into the audience. The tone of his instrument was intensely singing, especially in the high register (where the Amati appeared to have its specific strengths!). The pp section in bars 31ff was particularly touching, enchanting, subtle.
Some tiny quibbles: at the f in bar 39, the first pair of semiquavers was inégal—why? Also, there were moments where the performance seemed in danger of losing tension. However, its strengths were definitely in the intimate, gentle, subtle moments. And the ending was truly enchanting, magic!
III. Allegro passionato
Isata started with a fluent, flowing tempo: she is technically excellent—but that is one instance where I wished for the piano part to appear with more power (being by Brahms!), rhythmically a tad more accentuated, and more as an autonomous contender to the cello part.
I felt that the transition to the Trio part (bars 126 – 129) could be more subtle, more mysterious, the frequent changes in atmosphere in the Trio perhaps more explicit, more distinct.
IV. Allegro molto
Could it be that there were slight signs of exhaustion? There were subtle, momentary tempo instabilities in the first part of the movement: a short moment where the tempo appeared rushed, and a couple of bars later, a momentary loss in tension… Maybe, it took the artists a few moments to find the “right” tempo & spirit for this movement? The music otherwise appeared joyful, serene, at the same time also slightly melancholic (if not a bit transfigured?). Another wonderful invention by Brahms!
Overall Rating: ★★★½
Encore — Variations On Holst’s Christmas Carol “In the Bleak Midwinter”
1904/1905, Gustav Holst (1874 – 1934) composed “3 Hymns for the English Hymnal” for chorus and organ, H.73. The first one of these is the now well-known Christmas Carol “In the Bleak Midwinter”. Sheku and Isata Kanneh-Mason presented this as encore, arranged for piano and cello, and they actually created a set of 6 variations of their own making.
Holst’s Christmas carol is nice and simple—maybe slightly too simple, and certainly with the potential to turn into an “ear worm”. In my mind, there was no doubt: the carol as such appeared far too trivial, simplistic after the Brahms sonata—a clear step “down”. Fortunately, there were the variations by the Kanneh-Masons: these rescued the ending! In the first three, the cello part turns more and more virtuosic and playful (spiccato playing dominates the third variation), variation #4 is minore and elegiac. In variation #5, Isata Kanneh-Mason unleashed the true lightness and agility of her piano touch (at last), and the last variation was a joint, virtuosic and playful finale. Gladly, the artists didn’t repeat the carol in the end!
This recital confirmed the excellent impression that I had from Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s earlier concert. A fascinating artist, indeed! Although Isata is his senior by two years, she doesn’t play up the “big sister”—rather, she is ever so supportive towards her brother. To some degree, her playing seems to reflect her slender, rangy, if not fragile stature: I’m sure she can play more forceful—especially in the Brahms sonata, I expected a little more “power”. Her primary strength is in the subtleties, in light, agile playing. As a duo, though, the interaction between the two artists could hardly have been any better.