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:

Timothy Ridout & Frank Dupree – Bridge, Britten & Bowen @ Wigmore Hall

Timothy Ridout (viola, above), Jack Dupree (piano, below)

Bridge Pensiero; Allegro appassionato (1908)
Britten Lachrymae: Reflections on a Song of John Dowland Op. 48a (1950)
Bowen Viola Sonata No. 1 in C minor Op. 18 (1907)

Wigmore Hall, London
Tuesday 5 February 2019

Photo credit Kaupo Kikkas (Timothy Ridout)

Review by Ben Hogwood

The first Tuesday in the month usually brings with it a lunchtime recital at the Wigmore Hall from an artist on the YCAT roster. YCAT (Young Classical Artists Trust) is a charitable organisation looking after the development of emerging classical artists. A snapshot of its alumni (Alison Balsom, Simon Haram, the Belcea Quartet and Sean Shibe) bears testament to the success of their program and the longevity of the careers they boost.

On this evidence, viola player Timothy Ridout is another who looks set for great things – as does German pianist Frank Dupree, with whom he gave this recital. Dupree was demonstrating his versatility with a second appearance at the hall in nine days (previously appearing with BBC New Generation artist, trumpeter Simon Höfele)

The pair began with two compositions by Frank Bridge, himself a viola player – but one who seemed reluctant to write anything substantial for his own instrument. The Pensiero and Allegro appassionato are the only works that survive. Written in 1908, they fall into Bridge’s late Romantic period and make a very satisfying double. Ridout played the Pensiero affectionately and with a beautiful tone, which opened out for the surge of the Allegro appassionato that followed.

Bridge and Benjamin Britten enjoyed an inspirational creative partnership, the elder man a lasting influence on his pupil. Britten’s Lachrymae is his major work for viola and piano, though is more commonly heard in its orchestral arrangement. It is a masterful set of variations on a song by John Dowland, If my complaints could passions move, and reverses the variation format so that we hear all the variations first and the tune right at the end. He also refers to a second Dowland song, Flow my tears, in the course of the piece.

Ridout and Dupree gave a superb performance, atmospheric right from the start with a commendable attention to detail and a brooding passion which was unleashed in the fifth and sixth variations. The dynamic shadings were exquisitely realised, Ridout’s tone was beautifully judged, and Dupree’s punctuation marks were ideally clipped in the seventh variation.

Finally a very different form of Englishness was heard in the form of York Bowen’s Viola Sonata no.1. Bowen wrote this at the age of 20, and it shows an early command of the required form, as well as melodic invention, which both players clearly enjoyed. There was humour, too, in the coda parts of the first movement, and in the closing pages, which felt like a race to the finish between the two.

The sonata’s dimensions are considerable – 29 minutes in this performance – but the work did not outstay its welcome, thanks to the energy of the outer movements. These drove forward with great enthusiasm and lyrical input. Ridout’s tone was consistently strong and rich in the low register, his phrasing ideal – while Dupree matched him note for note in the tricky accompaniment. The slow movement found the emotional heart of the piece, but the sweeping optimism of the last movement stayed with the audience the longest.

As a nicely chosen encore Ridout introduced Bowen’s Melody for the G string (1917), its title a lightly humourous take on Bach’s Air but also rooting the viola player to the same string for the whole five minutes. With a charming tune, it provided a winsome finish to a very fine concert.

More music

You can watch Timothy and Jack in York Bowen’s Romance below, also at the Wigmore Hall:

Meanwhile to hear the music in this concert, the Spotify playlist below includes all the works performed, in versions currently available:

Timothy has not yet recorded any of the works featured, but his debut disc for Champs Hill is well worth hearing – the complete works for viola and piano by Belgian composer Henri Vieuxtemps:

Links

You can find out more about the work of YCAT and their artists on their website

BBC Proms: BBC Singers / Sakari Oramo – Songs of Farewell and Laura Mvula premiere

Proms at the Cadogan Hall: BBC Singers (above) / Sakari Oramo (below)

Bridge Music, when soft voices die (1907)
Vaughan Williams Rest (1902)
Holst Nunc dimittis (1915)
Laura Mvula Love Like A Lion (2018, world premiere)
Parry Songs of Farewell (1913-15)

Cadogan Hall, Monday 20 August 2018

You can listen to this Prom by clicking here The times given on this page refer to the starting times on the broadcast itself

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

Over the last couple of decades the Monday lunchtime strand of the BBC Proms concerts have gone from strength to strength, and the 2018 season looks like being an especially good vintage. English song has fared particularly well, and on the heels of Dame Sarah Connolly and Joseph Middleton’s imaginative recital, here was a choral selection based around rest, sleep and departure.

To be more specific, the form of rest composers Bridge, Vaughan Williams, Holst and Parry had in mind was the Eternal form. Frank Bridge wrote Music when soft voices die (from 1:49 on the broadcast) as his entry for a magazine competition, Vaughan Williams set the text of Rest (6:33) as a deeply felt short song, while Gustav Holst’s setting of the Nunc Dimittis (10:49), made in 1915, was resurrected for publication by his daughter Imogen in 1979.

Pride of place, however, went to Sir Hubert Parry’s Songs of Farewell, one of the crowning glories of his output. Rarely performed as a cycle, this series of unaccompanied motets, completed late in the composer’s life and in the shadow of the First World War, marks some of Parry’s deepest thoughts on mortality. They are every bit as profound in today’s world as they would have been then, and an attentive audience in the Cadogan Hall evidently took plenty from this interpretation.

Sakari Oramo has experience as a choral conductor but this was his first outing with the BBC Singers. He led them in a direct, unfussy manner, shaping the phrases while recognising this experienced group already have the tools at their disposal to make a beautiful sound.

Parry constructed the cycle so that his part writing gains density as the songs unfold, moving from four parts through to eight by the final Lord, let me know thine end.
Oramo took us on that progression with a gradual increase of intensity, helped by purity of tone and unanimity of voice. My soul, there is a country (29:09) began as a lighter, thoughtful account, building in intensity, the parts moving closely together. I know my soul hath power to know all things (32:53) was notable as much for its expressive pauses between words, Oramo’s direction ensuring a tight-knit ensemble. Some of Parry’s musical phrases are of considerable length, but the BBC Singers took them in their stride.

The density grew, from five parts (the beautiful Never weather-beaten sail, 38:35) to six (There is an old belief, ) then seven (a hypnotic account of All round the earth’s imagined corners, 43:15) to ultimately eight (Lord, let me know mine end, 50:04). This was the apex of the performance, notable for its calm acceptance of the final days of life, and in the closing pages the BBC Singers portrayed Parry facing his ultimate departure with an incredibly moving dignity.

The whole concert was structured rather like the Parry cycle, beginning from the small but poignant songs from Vaughan Williams and Bridge. The BBC Singers were excellent, with beautiful phrasing, and a surprise was in store for the Holst. Often the Nunc Dimittis is a softly voiced counterpoint to the Magnificat, but this one grew from small beginnings to become a forceful statement, delivered with impressive surety.

And so to Laura Mvula’s three-part work Love Like A Lion (12:58), written to a commission by the BBC but charting rest and loss in a rather different way. The loss here was a relationship, causing intense pain in Like A Child but with acceptance given in I Will Nor Die (For Him) (20:30), with a penetrating solo from Helen Neeves (21:08) over a gently undulating accompaniment that took us to a special, faraway place. Free from restrictions, Love Like a Lion itself (23:46) revelled in its new freedom, as did Sakari Oramo – who knows Mvula well from their Birmingham days. Love Like A Lion showed her ease with choral writing, and was a deeply expressive voyage from darkness to light. Hopefully we will hear more from her very soon.

BBC Proms: Dame Sarah Connolly & Joseph Middleton – English Songs

Proms at the Cadogan Hall: Dame Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano, above), Joseph Middleton (piano, below)

Stanford A Soft Day Op.140/3 (from A Sheaf of Songs from Leinster) (1913) (from 7:15 on the broadcast)
Parry Weep you no more, sad fountains (from English Lyrics Set 4) (1896) (9:58)
Vaughan Williams Love-Sight (from The House of Life) (1903) (12:18)
Gurney Thou didst delight my eyes (1921) (16:53)
Somervell A Shropshire Lad – ‘Into my heart an air that kills’ (1904) (20:19)
Bridge Come to me in my dreams (1906) (22:45)
Howells Goddess of Night (1920)
Bridge Journey’s End (1925) (28:19)
Britten A Sweet Lullaby (36:34); Somnus (40:31) (both 1947, world premieres)
Holst Journey’s End (1929) (42:50)
Britten A Charm of Lullabies Op.41 (1947) (45:09, 47:22, 49:08, 51:06, 52:48)
Lisa Illean Sleeplessness … Sails (2018, world premiere) (57:31)
Mark-Anthony Turnage Farewell (2016, world premiere)

Cadogan Hall, Monday 6 August 2018

You can listen this Prom by clicking here The times given on this page refer to the starting times on the broadcast itself

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood. Photo of Sarah Connolly (c) Jan Capinski

11 composers and four world premieres in an hour. Not a recipe for sleep and respite, you might think, but Dame Sarah Connolly and Joseph Middleton constructed between them an enchanting tour of English song, ending up at some far-flung outposts.

For anyone new to the form this would have been the ideal introduction, especially as Dame Sarah was singing with wonderful clarity and diction. I hardly needed to glance at the texts, for her words and expressions, added to those of Middleton’s carefully and beautifully crafted piano parts, did the job perfectly. The structure of the recital was very satisfying too, with natural pauses at the end of a short group of songs for applause and the intake of breath – and, as the subject matter was sleep and dreams, it ensured nobody had fallen foul of the listening criteria in the hot conditions!

The two began in Ireland, presenting the beatific calm of Winifred LettsA Soft Day, as set by Stanford, with the ‘wind from the south’ that some of us in the hot Cadogan Hall would have been longing for! So too for the subject of Parry’s Weep you no more, sad fountains, with its flowing piano lines. This pair from the fathers of English song led to one of the ‘sons’ – Vaughan Williams, and a deeply felt Love-Sight from his song-cycle The House of Life – and Ivor Gurney, his moving Thou didst delight my eyes.

We moved on to Arthur Somervell, the brief but tenderly devastating Into my heart an air that kills (from A Shropshire Lad) and then Come to me in my dreams, an expressive, earlier example of Frank Bridge’s chromatic credentials. Bridge appeared later with the lovelorn Journey’s End, following Herbert Howells’ magical Goddess Of Night – where Connolly allowed the text plenty of room.

Britten’s interpretations of sleep and dreams range from the calm to the nightmarish, aspects that surfaced throughout his song-cycle A Charm of Lullabies, which was given with two extra songs intended for the cycle but left unused. Recently ‘repaired’ by Colin Matthews, A Sweet Lullaby and Somnus were receiving their world premieres and were interesting finds if not quite reaching the level of intensity in the cycle itself.

Britten starts his night with A Cradle Song, before Connolly’s Scots accent (she was born relatively close by in County Durham!) brought an extremely authentic voice to The Highland Balou. The fifth number, The Nurse’s Song, is structured like the Dirge from Britten’s earlier Serenade for tenor, horn and strings. It focused everyone in the hall on the vivid storytelling of Connolly’s voice, from which she moved through humour, intense scolding (scary, too!) and soft slumber. The music ranged wildly, Britten’s wandering piano writing recalling Shostakovich in A Cradle Song, while the clustered chords of the refrain in Sephestia’s Lullaby spoke vividly in a language Janáček would understand. Connolly’s characterisations were brilliant, the audience impatient to clap between numbers initially but held in rapt concentration at the end.

In between the Britten discoveries, Gustav Holst contributed a sparse but telling interpretation of Journey’s End, which Connolly again sang with deep expression, while Australian composer Lisa Illean gave us another world premiere, a farewell of her own in Sleeplessness … Sails. This was a very slow-moving piece where Connolly held admirable control, despite the music’s seeming reluctance to move on. Arguably more effective was Turnage’s Farewell, a profound statement which ended with the composer bounding on the platform, delighted at the interpretation. It would be lovely to hear more from him in song – and from this pair, too, who delivered a wonderful hour’s escapism to the land of nod!

You can hear Dame Sarah Connolly and Joseph Middleton’s new recital disc Come To Me In My Dreams, which features much of the music heard in this concert, on the Spotify link below:

Live review – Răzvan Suma & Rebeca Omordia: Do you like British Music?

Răzvan Suma (cello, above – photo credit Adrian Stoicoviciu), Rebeca Omordia (piano, below)

Romanian Cultural Institute, London, Thursday 9th March, 2017

Delius Romance (1896); Ireland Cello Sonata in G minor (1923); Elgar Salut d’amour, Op.12 (1888); Venables Elegy, Op.2 (1980); Matthew Walker Fast Music, Op.158 (2016); Enescu Allegro in F minor (1897); Lloyd Webber Nocturne (1948); Bridge Scherzetto, H19 (1902)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

It is not often musicians get the chance to tour unusual repertoire, though Răzvan Suma and Rebeca Omordia have been doing just so with a recital of mainly British music which tonight arrived at the Romanian Cultural Institute as part of its enterprising Enescu Concert Season.

Playing continuously for just over an hour, their choice of music made for a varied as well as cohesive programme. Opening with the discreet charm of Delius’s early Romance, its echoes of Grieg and Massenet not precluding a more personal expression, the duo continued with an account of Ireland’s Cello Sonata that was a world away from the sombre introspection most often associated with this composer’s chamber output. After a taut and impulsive take on the initial Moderato, the slow movement exuded an anxiety that motivated the expected fatalism, then a finale whose tensile progress resulted in a peroration of unusual eloquence and resolve. Certainly, Ireland’s music only stands to benefit from such a forthright approach, and it is to be hoped that Suma’s and Omordia’s advocacy will continue long beyond their present tour.

After an elegant if not too indulgent reading of Elgar’s Salut d’amour, the duo played pieces by two contemporary figures. If Ian Venables is best known for a substantial contribution to English art-song, his chamber music is not insignificant and this early Elegy gave notice of an immersion in the ‘British tradition’ never insular or derivative. Keen to offset the inward tendencies of this repertoire, Robert Matthew Walker penned Fast Music as a toccata which veers engagingly between the incisive and ironic on its way to a decidedly nonchalant close.

The performers’ Romanian lineage was acknowledged with a propulsive account of Enescu’s Allegro in F minor that seems to have been a ‘dry run’ for the opening movement of his First Cello Sonata. The suave second theme is almost identical and while the stormy main theme of this piece is a little short-winded, and its development lacks focus compared to that of the sonata, the impetus sustained here is demonstrably greater than is found in its more rhapsodic and discursive successor. Such, at least, was the impression left by this persuasive rendering.

The recital concluded with two further miniatures by English composers. Rediscovered only after his death, the Nocturne by William Lloyd Webber evinces an appealing soulfulness the greater for its brevity: to which the early Scherzetto (also relocated posthumously) by Bridge provided a telling foil in its capricious humour and flights of fancy. It certainly made for an appropriate ending to this well-conceived and superbly executed programme; one, moreover, that is eminently worth catching at one of the subsequent appearances by this impressive duo.

Further information about these artists and their current UK tour can be found at website and website