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:

Happy National Album Day…

Last year saw a very successful first run for National Album Day, where we were all encouraged to listen to our favourite album in full at 3.33pm. (I listened to Radiator by the Super Furry Animals in case you ask!)

The sequel is already here today – the year of Don’t Skip. This is to encourage us back to the idea of listening to a single body of work from one musical source rather than a playlist, and to lengthen our attention spans as we do so.

This return to album-playing first principals, warts and all, may well mean taking in some of those puzzling instrumental interludes or hidden tracks (especially if you like progressive rock like I do!) but equally it will offer the chance to marvel at those tracks buried in albums that were quite clearly singles in waiting.

For lovers of classical music, National Album Day should also be heartily encouraged. The classical album might be more of a movable feast than its pop counterpart, but the same principles apply, and Arcana has decided to humbly offer up a few favourites that fit the album format.

One successful way to produce a classical album is to focus in on the music of a particular country. Even better, you can follow the brief of Michael Tilson Thomas and the London Symphony Orchestra, focusing on a particular composer in exile or relocated from home. This example is a thoroughly engrossing look at Stravinsky’s time in America. With brilliantly played pieces short and long, serious and humorous, it is an album to which I return often:

English music fits perfectly into this way of thinking too. Recently the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and Rumon Gamba have been looking at the world of British Tone Poems for Chandos – and the recently-released second volume is a gem, with works from diverse sources such as Dorothy Howell, Vaughan Williams and John Foulds:

Another point of departure is the inspiration of a particular artist. On this disc from BIS featuring works inspired by the clarinettist Benny Goodman, Martin Fröst revels in the delights of music by Copland, Hindemith and Malcolm Arnold:

Alternatively if you are a classical performer, you can go for works written for your own performance. The great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich was one of the first artists to carry this one through – and this 1975 combination of concertos for cello and orchestra by Dutilleux and Lutoslawski is a winner:

If you are a singer, you can bring the words into play. Language or poetry can form the inspiration for a record, as it does with this wonderful collection from Anne Sofie von Otter and Bengt Forsberg. La Bonne Chanson was the first record of song I bought, and it stays with me today:

It is interesting to see how newer classical artists have approached the format. Sheku Kanneh-Mason offered something for everyone on Inspiration, his first release, catering for both the newcomer to the cello or the established listener. Either will surely enjoy the Shostakovich Cello Concerto no.1, but also his arrangement of Bob Marley‘s No Woman No Cry:

Finally I offer up two of my own favourite classical albums, both from the ECM label – which celebrates its 50th anniversary next month. The first is composer-themed, an introduction to the haunting sound world of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt in definitive performances, including a magical version of Fratres for twelve cellos:

The second is led by organist Christopher Bowers-Broadbent, and includes a dazzling account of Dance IV by Philip Glass, the culmination of an album including works by Pärt and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. Listen and be enthralled:

All that remains is for me to wish you a happy National Album Day, whatever you end up listening to – and if you do, please share them below!

Ben Hogwood

Get behind the Classic BRITs

On Wednesday night the Classic BRITs returned for the first time in five years, back in the Royal Albert Hall.

While they have been away, several things have changed in classical music – and the most striking of those, on this evidence, is an increased diversity. The award winners were led by cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, a remarkable talent – and also a remarkable young man. His debut album Inspiration meets the expectations of a major label without compromising his own ideas, such as arranging Bob Marley’s No Woman, No Cry for solo cello. It works much better than you’d expect!

The inclusion of Marley, just a couple of tracks after Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto no.1, shows the influence playlists on streaming services have had on album planning, but also demonstrates a refreshing approach to bringing music of all forms together.

Tokio Myers also blends different styles, giving an intense live performance at the ceremony that included a barrage of drums, a soft Debussy reverie and some powerful electronically based music with its roots towards grime. Myers used to play in Mr Hudson & The Library among other groups, and he uses his experiences to bring a really satisfying urban grit to go with the purity of the piano.

Elsewhere it was gratifying to see winners young and old credit their teachers and musical education, and stress the importance of music in schools. Jess Gillam, deserved recipient of the Sound Of Classical award, did this – and so did Nile Rodgers. The guest presenter who was originally a classical guitarist playing the works of Fernando Sor – but who felt out of place in that sphere and went on to be a great guitarist elsewhere.

Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber went further, taking the government to task, but both Sheku and Myers were more subtle, thanking their teachers by name. Amanda Holden, who presented Myers with his award, recounted a visit he made to her daughter’s school, which has doubtless stayed with them.

Musical education is so important. I would not have been able to afford cello lessons at the age of eleven if the school hadn’t paid for them, and even towards the end of my grades my funding was dwindling and my parents were really having to dig deep to support me. I will be forever grateful for that, as I would not have been put on a musical path without it! It goes to show how it is not just the frontline performers who benefit from a musical education, but those much further down behind the scenes too.

Back to the BRITs, which also featured a wonderful performance of the theme and first of Bach‘s Goldberg Variations from Beatrice Rana – a shame we couldn’t hear more than we did! My only big criticism would be directed at the album of the year shortlist. While it is fine to include musicals, shows, film and middle of the road albums none of the shortlist had an obvious classical music connection. It is a thought for the future, where it might also work to have a ‘Best electronic’ category, recognising the likes of Nils Frahm, Bonobo and other classically influenced music that 6Music serve so well.

These are minor gripes though. We should get behind the Classic BRITs and support it, because it gives people a way in to classical music, pointing them forward towards the joys of the genre should they wish to look around further. There really should be room for everyone, and at the very least when I watch on Sunday night I shall be grateful for my musical education!

Cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason plays Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah

As part of Arcana’s celebration of the cello this year, here is BBC Young Musician 2016 Sheku Kanneh-Mason, playing Tom Hodge‘s new arrangement of Leonard Cohen‘s Hallelujah:

Sheku played the arrangement at last night’s BAFTA ceremony, marking the passing of so many from the film industry in 2016.

Decca have just released a new EP by their new cellist that contains two more reflective song arrangements, Fauré’s Après un rêve and Bloch’s Abodah