Talking Heads: Sheku Kanneh-Mason

Interviewed by Ben Hogwood
Picture courtesy of Decca Classics

Sheku Kanneh-Mason is a rare commodity. In the midst of dazzling publicity, he is helping open doors for classical music by his very approachable demeanour and an approach to album-making that brings it into closer contact with other forms. On the evidence of this interview he is refreshingly grounded and intently focussed on his first love, which of course is music.

While some have expressed concern that the cellist might be overworked early in his career, our discussions around second album Elgar confirm him to be relaxed and deeply satisfied with the newest addition to his discography.

His debut album Inspirations, released this time in 2019, presented the Shostakovich Cello Concerto no.1, the piece he played to win the final of the BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2016. Kanneh-Mason coupled it with diverse pieces from Pablo Casals, Offenbach, Leonard Cohen and Bob Marley. This time however his main focus is the work of a much older man, the Cello Concerto in E minor of Sir Edward Elgar.

The recording of this much-loved corner of the cello repertoire was made with conductor Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra. It has an intensity which belies Kanneh-Mason’s tender years, offering new viewpoints into what will be familiar music to a lot of people. Again the context into which Sheku puts the Elgar on his album is intriguing, of which more later. But where did he first hear the music of Elgar – and was it the piece he has just recorded?

“It would have been the concerto, definitely”, he recalls. “I listened to it a lot when I was younger, and I grew up with the famous Jacqueline du Pré version. While we were working on it I listened to a lot of different recordings of the piece, it’s such a special work. Other recordings I really love are the most recent Steven Isserlis recording, Truls Mørk with Simon Rattle, and the famous one from Beatrice Harrison with Elgar himself conducting. There is a huge range of ways in which people approach the piece, and what strikes me about the piece is that everyone reacts in a different way.”

The second movement (a Scherzo) finds Kanneh-Mason and Rattle scooting along with a particularly quick choice of tempo, and the cellist clearly relishes the fast bow strokes required. “It’s a fun piece to play, and you get swept up in it but you have to work on getting a lightness of touch with the repeated notes.”

Elgar’s concerto may be the main piece on the album but there are a variety of shorter pieces imaginatively included by Kanneh-Mason. One composer in particular we may be hearing from again is the Swiss-born American Ernest Bloch, born to Jewish parents. Two of his shorter pieces are included here. “I love his music”, says Sheku. “For Grade 8 I did the Prayer for cello and piano, which is a piece I knew to play young. It’s music I really love, and there’s also the piece for cello and orchestra, Schelomo, which I hope to record in the future. You can feel some of the pain in the harmonies he uses.”

More obscure still is a piece for cello ensemble, Hymnus, by the German composer Julius Klengel. “It’s an amazing piece”, he says. “He was a cellist as well, so I think that’s how he ended up writing for 12 instruments. Every week at the Royal Academy of Music we had a cello ensemble, and that’s how we got to know it. There’s a nice link there, as there is for all the pieces on the album. It’s very inspiring being around really young hardworking musicians and all of us being based in one place.”

How does Kanneh-Mason balance his studies with days like today, where he has a whole day of promotional interviews to navigate? “I just have to be very organised with my time, which is a good thing for us anyway. I never feel that I have too much on.”
He is particularly gushing when talk turns to his work with Sir Simon Rattle, and the bond they share in the interpretation of the Elgar. “Definitely. I think what I love about working with someone is the freedom to do what I want but knowing that they can do everything as well. It’s the spirit of true collaboration I think”.

The theme of collaborating runs through both albums, and Kanneh-Mason identifies with this original approach. “It’s nice to have a link and a reason for putting them together, like creating a concert program. It’s great to record a masterpiece and a big piece, and put it with smaller pieces that have an equal range of colour and harmony, and perhaps more subtleties.”

For Elgar he was helped by Simon Parkin, with sensitive arrangements for cello and orchestra of Elgar’s Nimrod, from the Enigma Variations, and the Romance originally written for bassoon and orchestra. To that he adds Frank Bridge’s Spring Song, the folksongs Blow The Wind Southerly and Scarborough Fair, and Fauré’s profound Elégie.

“He’s an amazingly skilled arranger”, says Sheku of Parkin, “and he keeps the heart of the pieces while making the most of the instruments. I love mixing the arrangements that complement the pieces of music in their original form, and it’s great to record them in respect of friends and teachers, which makes it more personal. I’m always excited and open to lots of new things and working with new people. I’ve had some amazing experiences with these recordings, and you can hopefully hear the enjoyment from them.”

As you might expect given his album programming, Sheku’s ‘out of hours’ musical tastes are varied. “I listen to a mixture of classical, jazz, reggae, and different kinds of folk music”, he says. “Growing up with music all around me has been really inspiring, and it has kept me grounded and motivated. Now I live with students, and the people below me are also musicians.”

Thinking back to his BBC Young Musician of the Year triumph brings Kanneh-Mason onto a subject close to his heart, musical education. “I think we should have as many young people in music as possible. The Young Musician of the Year is great as it shows people playing to the highest standard. When I did it I found watching people three or four years older than me was really inspiring, and it ultimately gives people the opportunity to do many more things.”

He also notes the importance of after care. “Afterwards there was so much attention, but the BBC really looked after me. It was important to have the right people around me and to be working with the right people. A competition is only good if what comes after is good.”

With time running out, we conclude by discussing his favourite musicians of the moment. “I love Steven Isserlis”, he says. “He’s my favourite cellist to watch…and I also love listening to the violinist Daniel Lozakovich. Martha Argerich is also someone I find really inspiring, I love watching her play the piano.”

This blend of youth and maturity, established and new, is perhaps the most inspiring thing about Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s success. His approach is very inclusive, and his next ventures will be very interesting to chart and appraise. With Elgar reaching the heights of number eight in the album charts so far, the musical world is very open to him right now.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s Elgar album is out now on Decca Classics – it can be purchased here, via Apple Music, or streamed below via Spotify:

Wigmore Mondays – Jerusalem Quartet play Haydn & Bartók

Jerusalem Quartet [Alexander Pavlovsky, Sergei Bresler (violins), Ori Kam (viola), Kyril Zlotnikov (cello)]

Wigmore Hall, Monday 20 January 2020 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here (opens in a new window)

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood
Photo of Jerusalem Quartet Felix Broede

The subtitle for this concert on the BBC Sounds website is ‘Quartet Masters’ – which is spot on when you consider the contributions both Haydn and Bartók made to this intimate form of chamber music. The string quartet – two violins, viola and cello – has presented composers with both challenge and inspiration over its 250-year existence, and even as I type this there is no sign of the form dying out.

A big part of the credit should go to Haydn, whose quartets are often used at the beginning of a program such as this. Sometimes that means the consistent quality of his work is overlooked, but there was no doubt of that happening in this performance from the Jerusalem Quartet.

Theirs was a red blooded performance, with a glossy texture to the luxurious string sound, aided by plenty of vibrato on the string. Such an approach would not have worked in the composer’s earlier quartets, but was more appropriate here for one of the six published in 1799 as the composer’s Op.76, his most mature statements yet as a quartet composer.

The ‘Fifths’ is so named because of the melodic interval Haydn uses between the two notes at the very start (2:10 on the BBC Sounds link) This motif becomes an integral part of the quartet, and as the first movement progresses it can be frequently heard. The Jerusalem Quartet’s bold performance gains more charm in the second movement (9:25), a light and relatively gentle dance. Alexander Pavlovsky’s intonation went a little awry here but not for long.

In the third movement, a darkly coloured Minuet (15:18), the quartet impress greatly, divided in two as the two violins’ melody is shadowed by the grainy tones of viola player Ori Kam and cellist Kyril Zlotnikov in impressive unison. The clouds part for a central Trio section with a rustic feel (16:44) before the obdurate theme returns (18:16) The fourth movement, initially quite furtive (19:10), blossoms into an affirmative finish.

Bartók had already confirmed his outright mastery of the string quartet form by the time he reached his Third Quartet of 1927, and the Fourth, completed a year later, achieves if anything a greater level of innovation in sound, together with strong melodic content and the use of connecting ideas between the five movements.

Bartók was obsessed with symmetrical forms, and the dimensions of the Fourth feel wholly right. Its five movements have two intensely concentrated pieces at their outer edge. Movements two and four are Scherzos – which implies they should be witty but the second is ghostly and the fourth otherworldly. The third movement is one of the composer’s classic evocations of the night, with pictorial references to insects and birds as well as dislocated elements of Hungarian folk music.

This performance was right on the money. From the start of the first movement (26:27) the tension is palpable, with a driven approach emphasising Bartók’s dissonant writing but also his melodic invention. The resolution in a pure C major is all the more telling because of it. The second movement (33:10) is marked to be played with all four players using mutes (‘con sordino’) and the ghostly entrails that result chill to the bone – in this case even on a cold January day. The four players shade their contributions exquisitely, preparing us for the central third movement (36:22), a great example of Bartók’s ‘night music’.

The emotional centre of the quartet, this is where time almost stops, and the Jerusalem Quartet captured this feeling immediately with their long, held chords and the songful lines from Kyril Zlotnikov’s cello and Alexander Pavlovsky’s violin. These held a profile close to folk melodies, the other three instruments standing watchfully by.

The fourth movement (42:50) broke us out of these nocturnal dreams, using pizzicato only (each of the four instruments required to pluck rather than use the bow) The folk-like ‘snaps’ against the board of the instrument were very effective, especially on the cello, but so was the thrumming of the violins and viola, which had an enchanting quality.

Finally the fifth movement (46:20) brings a lasting resolution, though it starts with great cut and thrust, using music of dissonance. Later a light-hearted diversion into more folk-based material breaks out, after which we head for a wholly convincing ending, summing up the whole performance perfectly.

A very fine concert, this, which was capped by an encore of the third movement (Minuet) from Mozart’s String Quartet in D minor K421 (54:24). Not only did this piece share the same key of the ‘Fifths’ quartet, it is one of a set of six quartets dedicated to Haydn, so brought the concert full circle with music of both grit and charm, rather like that of its dedicatee.

Repertoire

This concert contained the following music (with timings on the BBC Sounds broadcast in brackets):

Haydn String Quartet in D minor Op.76/5 ‘Fifths’ (1797-8) (2:10)
Bartók String Quartet no.4 (1928) (26:27)

Further listening & viewing

You can watch the Jerusalem Quartet play Bartók’s String Quartet no.4 in a live concert here:

The Jerusalem Quartet have recorded both the works played in this concert, which can be heard on the playlist link below:

Bartók’s cycle of six string quartets is one of his very greatest achievements, and you can track the development of his style by listening through chronologically. The later quartets in particular give the most reward to repeated listening, for even 100 or so years on these works are not easy to grasp straight away! The cycle from the Emerson String Quartet remains one of their best recordings:

Haydn is the father of the string quartet, and his Op.76 set – again six quartets – represents the pinnacle of his compositions for the relatively new sound world of two violins, viola and cello. These are good natured works but have considerable depth too, as this recording by the Hungarian Takács String Quartet proves:

Mozart’s six quartets dedicate to Haydn are among his finest chamber works. This recording from the Hagen Quartett includes a particularly fine account of the D minor work from which the Jerusalem Quartet took their encore:

Live review – Soloists, CBSO Chorus & Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla: Mahler Symphony no.8

Erin Wall (soprano, Magna Peccatrix), Natalya Romaniw (soprano, Una poenitentium), Katja Stuber (soprano, Mater Gloriosa), Karen Cargill mezzo-soprano, Mulier Samaritana), Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano, Maria Aegyptiaca), A. J. Glueckert (tenor, Doctor Marianus), Roland Wood (baritone, Pater Ecstaticus), Morris Robinson (bass, Pater Profundus), CBSO Chorus, CBSO Youth Chorus, CBSO Children’s Chorus, University of Birmingham Voices, Baltimore Choral Arts Society, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Saturday 18 January 2020

Mahler Symphony no.8 in E flat major ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ (1906)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The run-up to the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra‘s centenary features several major choral works – none more so than the Eighth Symphony by which Mahler essayed his grandest and most-inclusive musical conception, at a pivotal juncture in the evolution of Western culture.

If more frequent performances these past few decades have made this piece less of an event than it once was, there was no lack of occasion in tonight’s rendering. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla launched the setting of Veni, creator spiritus with an impulsiveness as held good throughout this first part. There were passing intonational flaws among the soloists, along with moments of awkward coordination between choruses and orchestra, but these were as little next to the eloquent ensemble at Qui diceris Paraclitus, the spectral interlude prior to Informa nostri corporis, the vast and cumulative fugal edifice at Accende lumen sensibus, or the ecstatic outpouring from Gloria sit Patri Domino; sustained here with an unerringly judged rhetoric as ensured that this music hit the ground running right through to its heady closing cadence.

Perhaps for this reason MG-T chose not to make a substantial pause before the setting of the final scene of Goethe’s Faust that forms the second part, enabling the accumulated intensity to carry over into this latter’s lengthy orchestral prelude with its mingled anxiety and pathos.

From its starkly evocative beginnings, Mahler’s singular take on the ultimate Enlightenment text can feel at best discursive, so it was a tribute to the conductor’s sense of overall cohesion that what can easily sprawl rarely, if ever, lost focus as the path to redemption is outlined in philosophical and, above all, musical terms. Highpoints included a notably ominous response in the Choir and Echo, a powerfully sustained solo from Morris Robinson then an equally soulful one from A. J. Glueckert, appealingly deft singing from the combined children’s and youth choirs (no hint of coyness or schmaltz here), then the exquisitely dovetailed interplay of Erin Wall, Karen Cargill and Alice Coote – during which their subtly contrasted timbres were heard to advantage against an orchestral backdrop of the greatest delicacy and poise.

Next to these, Roland Wood’s solo lacked fervour and that by Natalya Romaniw sounded a touch ill at ease, though Katja Stuber had all the rapture necessary for her brief offstage solo while Glueckert surged through his second solo on route to an orchestral interlude in which the rippling interplay of woodwind and keyboards was limpidly rendered. Even more telling was MG-T’s handling of their gradual evanescence, from where the final Chorus Mysticus emerges. Always a distinctive moment, it proved especially memorable for the way in which the massed voices unfolded their intensifying expressive curve towards those seismic closing bars – here afforded maximum impact through the conductor’s refusal to linger unnecessarily when the off-stage brass enters to bring the whole work grandly and majestically full circle.

Such reservations as there were will likely be remedied in tomorrow’s performance, yet while MG-T will doubtlessly uncover further depths and nuances in the future, it is hard to imagine she will deliver a reading of greater conviction or purposefulness than that heard this evening.

The reviewed performance is being repeated today, Sunday 19th January. Further information can be found at the CBSO website

On record – Craven Faults: Erratics & Unconformities (The Leaf Label)

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

How refreshing to find an artist that keeps their self-promotion to a minimum. That said, it would be good to know more about Craven Faults at some point! Real name Richard Formby, he has a simple biography on his record label site describing his moniker as ‘half-remembered journeys across post-industrial Yorkshire’.

In fact Craven Faults has been a thing for a while, with his well-received Lowfold Works EPs containing electronic music that shows off an ambitious grasp of musical structure. He is capable of stretching out his approach to minimal music into tracks of 20 minutes or more, using the barest of elements like Philip Glass does but building them up with oscillating synthesizers and drones.

Erratics & Unconformities is his first LP.

What’s the music like?

The Yorkshire reference is helpful, for as first track Vacca Wall establishes its shimmering content it feels like a look across the brooding landscape of the North Yorkshire Moors – but gradually opens out like the wings of a darkly shaded butterfly. This is music supported by a constant bass line, which tolls out like a deep bell, and a percussion track that never extends beyond a single kick drum, if at all.

The instruction from The Leaf Label to ‘put a 17-minute window in your diary and watch the video for Vacca Wall is worth following. In their words, ‘the rest of your inbox can wait, you need slowly unravelling analogue synthesizer arpeggios right now’:

With the mood set for the album, the next five tracks spread across nearly an hour, revealing different but often darker shades. The shorter Deipkier has a kick drum too, while Cupola Smelt Mill has sharper definition to the synthesizers and a bassline off the beat. Picking up the more industrial theme, Slack Sley & Temple is even darker, its brooding outlines giving the impression of a machine. This is the biggest track on the album, an expansive number of austere beauty.

Hangingstones regains some of the mood of the opening, while Signal Post has a more soothing drone at its base.

Does it all work?

Yes. Craven Faults has a distinctive style, and repeated listening brings out the rhythmic invention in his music, which is greater than you might at first think. It explains why he doesn’t need anything more than a kick drum.

Ultimately this album works best as a single unit in which to immerse yourself, drawing the listener in with its textures and spatial effects.

Is it recommended?

Yes, because there is some very fine music here – though it does come with the health warning that its dark nature is not necessarily ideal for the oppressively cloudy January days where it barely gets light!

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Wigmore Mondays – Alexander Melnikov: Early piano music by Clementi, Haydn & Mozart

Alexander Melnikov (fortepiano)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 13 January 2020 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here (opens in a new window)

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

Something of a history lesson from the versatile pianist Alexander Melnikov, who is capable of moving between modern piano music on a concert grand and 19th century music on the instrument for which it was written, the fortepiano. Essentially the instrument is a forerunner of the grand version we are used to nowadays, but it allows us to see the join between the harpsichord – the go-to keyboard of much of the 18th century – and the bigger and more modern instruments the likes of Beethoven began to write for. Here Melnikov played an instrument by Paul McNulty after Walter & Sohn from an original of 1805. Alexander Skeaping deserves credit as the tuner and supplier.

Melnikov’s program was brilliantly conceived, including music by Mozart and Haydn but linking them through one of the leading pianists and composers of the day, Muzio Clementi. Beethoven was one of his greatest advocates and often played his sonatas, while Clementi promoted his fellow-composer in London, where he arrived in the early 1770s. At this point the English capital was regarded as the centre for keyboard innovations, and in the music for this concert – superbly played and interpreted by Melnikov – you can feel the sense of freedom and exploration as the music looks outwards and forwards towards Beethoven.

The pianist begins with a musical impression of Haydn by Clementi, a brief Prelude from his Musical Characteristics album written as a guide for to give performers an idea of the style of other composers. This short number (from 3:04 on the broadcast link) starts with a broad C major chord, helping us get used to the piano sound. The mood is free and expansive, with a busy left hand. The pianist adds a short improvised section, where it proves difficult to spot the joins, but this serves to lead us straight to a Haydn work, the Piano Sonata in C sharp minor HXVI:36 (4:53).

This was a very rare key for Haydn to use – and rare for piano music, with Beethoven’s Moonlight sonata the next excursion some 20 years later. Melnikov’s performance captures the exploratory air of the piece, beginning with quite a stern statement but then playfully holding back with some of the clipped right hand notes to emphasise the composer’s wit. Melnikov’s affinity for the music is clear, with some beautifully played melodies. The piano sound is lovely, with none of the tinny textures often associated with the earlier instruments.

The second movement is a Scherzando (14:26), Melnikov playing a graceful dance with a really satisfying sense of ebb and flow. The third movement (18:21) is the slowest, a slow and solemn Menuetto moving to a thoughtful and serene final section (20:14) where Haydn moves to the major key. The playing here, using the ‘damper’ pedal, is really lovely.

The next pair of works begin with Clementi’s second ‘impression’ of Mozart (24:17), where a great deal of technical control is required! Me The two composers famously sparred in an improvisation session in Vienna in 1781, so knew a lot about each other – but from the reports did not perhaps see eye to eye.

Clementi’s tribute is keenly felt however, before Mozart‘s own exploratory Fantasia (25:55) receives a carefully thought yet natural performance. Though a short piece, this unfinished work varies greatly in mood and tempo, with quick cascades from on high contrasting with dark left-hand thoughts, before a sunnier closing section to sweep away the clouds. Melnikov gives the music plenty of room, sometimes exaggerating the pauses but always to the benefit of the music.

The concert finished with one of Clementi’s own sonatas, the substantial Piano Sonata in G minor published in 1795. Before it we heard another Prelude from the Musical Characteristics, this time a portrait of himself with a tumbling figure and some highly chromatic music (32:55). The Sonata itself begins at 34:27 with a stern introduction of two-part writing, but that soon cuts to a busy and bright first movement proper. There are a number of abrupt mood swings in this movement, anticipating Beethoven’s way of changing quickly between thoughts, and Clementi also employs some daring harmonies for the time. Melnikov responds brilliantly to these, again his performance given as though performing a characterised stage work, with a stormy closing section.

The second movement (42:40) is marked Un poco adagio (loosely translated as ‘a little bit slow’) and is subtly charming, like a slower dance, before the third movement (48:38), marked Molto allegro (quick and lively), actually hangs back a bit in this performance before going full throttle to a thrilling finish. Again Melnikov’s right hand contours are brilliantly realised.

This was a really enjoyable concert, and great to see the importance of Clementi’s role properly realised. He was one of the true pioneers of early piano music, and without his part it is unlikely Mozart or especially Beethoven would have made their own mark.

Repertoire

This concert contained the following music (with timings on the BBC Sounds broadcast in brackets):

Clementi Musical Characteristics Op.19: Preludio II alla Haydn in C major (publ.1787)
Haydn Piano Sonata in C sharp minor HXVI:36 (publ.1780)
Clementi Musical Characteristics Op.19: Prelude I alla Mozart in A major (publ.1787)
Mozart Fantasia in D minor K397 (?1782)
Clementi Musical Characteristics Op.19: Prelude I alla Clementi (publ.1787)
Piano Sonata in G minor Op.34/2 (publ.1795)

Further listening

Alexander Melnikov has not yet recorded any of the music in this concert, but the playlist below includes recorded versions on the fortepiano wherever possible.

Thirty years ago it would have been unthinkable to consider we would now have a huge resource of recordings made on the fortepiano. This is thankful in part to early protagonists such as Melvyn Tan, but one pianist to have recorded a vast amount of this repertoire is Ronald Brautigam. His recordings of Beethoven are rewarding, but in Haydn he sparkles – such as in this disc of five sonatas, including the one heard in this concert:

Melnikov’s own discography on more historical instruments is in its relatively early stages, but this disc of piano music through the ages from Schubert to Stravinsky is well worth hearing:

Finally from this time comes a thrilling cycle of Beethoven sonatas for piano and violin – pioneering music which Arcana will explore in greater detail as part of 2020 Beethoven. This version with Isabelle Faust is one of the very best: