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:

Centenary post – Elgar: Cello Concerto

Today is the centenary of one of Sir Edward Elgar‘s best-loved works, first performed on this day in 1919. It was not always that way for the Cello Concerto in E minor, however, as an under-rehearsed premiere may well have contributed to a gap in London performances of more than a year.

The first performance took place with soloist Felix Salmond, Albert Coates conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. The first cellist to really further the concerto’s cause was Beatrice Harrison, seen above with Elgar in an early recording from 1920. Her official recording with the composer from 1928 can be heard on the playlist below.

Again the work fell into disregard, possibly on account of its darker autumnal hues. The melodies came to Elgar in the aftermath of a painful operation on his tonsils, and while he could hear the sound of fighting in the First World War across the English channel.

It was not really until 1965 that the work reached regular public consumption, thanks to a searing recording by the young Jacqueline du Pre, with the London Symphony Orchestra this time under Sir John Barbirolli’s direction (also on the playlist). This recording preserved du Pré’s reputation as a cellist of great passion and technique, with the considerable help of a seasoned Elgarian in Barbirolli behind the orchestral ‘wheel’. It also apparently convinced a certain Mstislav Rostropovich not to become better acquainted with the piece.

More recently the Cello Concerto has become widespread, most recently with a first night performance at the Proms from Sol Gabetta and an appearance at this year’s season from Sheku Kanneh-Mason.

Gabetta’s recorded version is also on the playlist, with Mario Venzago conducting the Royal Danish National Orchestra. It appears along with two very fine accounts from Julian Lloyd Webber – with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Yehudi Menuhin – and Steven Isserlis, his first recording of the work made with the London Symphony Orchestra and Sir Richard Hickox:

More recently Isserlis has revisited the work with Paavo Jarvi conducting the Philharmonia, a fine account about which he talked to Arcana here.

The Cello Concerto was Elgar’s last major work, completing an intriguing late set of compositions including the Violin Sonata and String Quartet, which share the concerto’s key of E minor, and the wonderful Piano Quintet in A minor. Those four works can be heard on the playlist below:

For a visual treat, though, you can enjoy Jacqueline du Pré’s playing here – not with Sir John Barbirolli but with her husband Daniel Barenboim, conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra:

Ask the Audience at the BBC Proms – Roisin Brophy on the BBC SO concert of Elgar, Vaughan Williams & Hugh Wood

For the latest in Arcana’s Ask The Audience series Roisin Brophy (above) gives her thoughts on the BBC Symphony Orchestra and their Prom of English music under Sir Andrew Davis.

Prom 53: Stacey Tappan (soprano) Dame Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), Anthony Gregory (tenor), BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sir Andrew Davis

Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis (1910)
Hugh Wood Scenes from Comus (1965)
Elgar The Music Makers Op.69 (1912)

Royal Albert Hall, Thursday 29 August 2019

You can listen to this Prom on the BBC iPlayer here

ARCANA: Roisin, how would you describe your musical upbringing?

I am from a very heavily Irish catholic family. I grew up on a lot of Irish folk music, and my mum is quite a hippy at heart. My god parents are also hippies at heart, and so I grew up with a lot of Cat Stevens and Joni Mitchell. My mum’s got really good taste in music, so I grew up always loving Led Zeppelin and they continue to be my favourite band.

My dad is quite a musical person, he plays guitar and sings, and therefore I think I was very influenced into doing folk music as a child, and also being a catholic and going to catholic school, and going to church – where I heard choral music. I sang in a choir for our local church, and I stopped when I was about 15 or 16.

I got into drum and bass completely by accident. I don’t even listen to drum and bass! I know a lot of it but because I happen to work in it. I was just picked up by a dubstep producer years ago, and got into drum and bass from that. Folk is my most natural style of music, although I don’t write it professionally.

Could you name three musical acts you love, and why you love them?

Joni Mitchell (above) – (a) because I grew up on her music, (b) because I think her vocal range and songwriting ability is unreachable by anybody else.

Led Zeppelin (above) Again the vocal range and the guitar and drum skills, for me, and their heavy influence from blues music, which you can really hear going into pop music.

My third would have to be Dolly Parton (above), because she’s a sassy lady, her songs are insanely catchy and again her voice is like no other.

What has been your experience of classical music so far?

I’ve always studied music, and did GCSE and ‘A’ level before studying popular music at university. I’ve always been around people that have been involved in classical music but not been involved personally, as I have always been on the popular or folk side of things. Going to Goldsmiths, which is very renowned for being a classical music education system, I had a lot of friends that were classical musicians and opera singers.

I’ve always loved classical music, and studying it you learn what you like and what you don’t like. I still listen to it most days, it’s more of a morning thing for me. I like piano-based stuff. Vladimir’s Blues by Max Richter is a good example.

How did you rate your first Proms experience?

I absolutely loved it, and I’m actually a bit blown away by how much I did love it. The second half was definitely a lot more emotive than the first, but I think that was because of how the piece (Elgar’s The Music Makers) moved. The crescendos were incredibly moving and the sound in general was such a massive sound with the choir, females on one side and male on the other, a huge orchestra and the percussion in the second piece.

I think it made me appreciate that it was not a piece of classical music I would necessarily listen to on headphones, but now that I’ve seen it live and understand the musicianship behind it, I would very much want to listen to it again as a recording.

What did you think of the Vaughan Williams?

I have a feeling I recognised it. I felt it was light, soft, warming, and dreamy. It was nice to listen to live and I have never seen classical music to that standard live before, so when that piece first opened and the string players were playing it together, how crisp and clear and on point it was! It almost sounded like it was recorded, it was so perfect.

What did you think of the Hugh Wood?

It definitely told the story and was creepy at times. It felt like it was for that purpose, and the emotions that it conveyed was exactly what it was meant to do. It was eerie and scary, and seeing the singers battle against the orchestra with no microphones was pretty amazing. I loved it.

But the Elgar was the one you love the most?

Yes, for sure. It was just a lot more emotive and there was more behind it. The sheer size of it you could tell not only how much went into the writing of it, but I can’t even begin to imagine what it must be like to write for that many musicians and to think about that many parts working together, and for it to come out that perfect. Add to that the hard work and musicianship and understanding the commands of the music itself was amazing.

What did you like about the Proms?

The venue is amazing, a beautiful place to be, and it’s worth a visit on its own regardless of whether there is a concert or not. Going to see classical music you’ve never seen or heard before, for me it opened my ears to listening to classical music I would never necessarily listen to at the moment. Now I’ve seen these pieces live I could now appreciate listening to a recording.

What might you improve about the experience?

I don’t want to change it, because it was as it’s supposed to be. I think because I’m used to going to watch music that requires amplification, seeing music that doesn’t require amplification that is never going to be as loud so you have to wear earplugs as it’s so bloody loud, so maybe I would change the loudness of the sound. But it has a meaning, and that’s the whole point.

Would you go again?

Yes, definitely.

Verdict: SUCCESS

You can listen to the Elgar piece The Music Makers below in this recent release from Dame Sarah Connolly and the BBC Symphony Chorus & Orchestra with Sir Andrew Davis:

Arcana at the Proms – Prom 53: Sir Andrew Davis conducts Vaughan Williams, Hugh Wood and Elgar’s The Music Makers & Huw Watkins

Prom 53: Stacey Tappan (soprano) Dame Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), Anthony Gregory (tenor), BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sir Andrew Davis

Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis (1910)
Hugh Wood Scenes from Comus (1965)
Elgar The Music Makers Op.69 (1912)

Royal Albert Hall, Thursday 29 August 2019

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood
Photo credits Chris Christodoulou

You can listen to this Prom on BBC Sounds here

A knight of the realm and a dame performing Elgar. It doesn’t get much more English than that! Yet on this humid night in the Royal Albert Hall the continental aspects of the music chosen were just as evident, Sir Andrew Davis securing a trio of very fine performances from the assembled forces.

To begin, the solemn but radiant strains of Vaughan WilliamsFantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, written in the wake of his studies with Ravel in France. That opening chord never fails to transport the listener to another place, and Davis has more experience with it than most. The BBC Symphony Orchestra strings responded as one, their unity as evident in the swelling of the music as it was when the parts were divided. The four soloists at the front – violinists Igor Yuzefovich and Dawn Beazley, viola player Norbert Blume and cellist Susan Monks played beautifully, as did the group of nine instruments on a raised platform at the back of the stage. With these judicious placements Davis ensured the balance of the music – both audibly and emotionally – was firmly aligned.

Hugh Wood’s Scenes from Comus approach Englishness from a very different perspective – that of the Second Viennese School, headed by Schoenberg. Notorious for its rejection of tonality, the school was an incredibly innovative part of 20th century classical music, and Wood was one of several English composers to fall under its spell. Often the accusation is that music without tonality lacks emotion, but Wood refutes that emphatically.

Scenes from Comus may not have an obvious key centre but it treats its story in a powerfully expressive way. The orchestra told the story with strongly rendered colours, with particularly fine playing from principal horn Martin Owen with the opening theme. Soloists Stacey Tappan and Anthony Gregory (both above) found an ideal balance with the orchestra, and the story – where an Attendant Lady, lost in a ‘wilde wood’, is kidnapped by Comus – came to life. The 87 year-old Wood was present in the audience, waving cheerily at Sir Andrew Davis in acknowledgement of an excellent performance of his piece, performed for the first time at the Proms in 1965.

Elgar’s The Music Makers, a setting of Arthur O’Shaughnessy’s Ode, has tended to fall short of critical acclaim, which is unfortunate as it contains some very fine music. In it the composer recycles some of his greatest melodies, quoting and redressing them in the manner of a greatest hits compilation. If anything that approach, when complemented by new musical ideas, makes the piece even more personal, speaking to us of his own favourite moments in music while wrought with worry about the onset of later life and the prospect of war.

The memorable opening line, ‘We are the music makers and we are the dreamers of dreams’, was magical in the hands of the BBC Symphony Chorus, subdued but wonderfully clear as they are in a recent recording made with Sir Andrew Davis for Chandos.

Also on the recording is Dame Sarah Connolly, and her first notes in this particular concert (‘they had no vision amazing of the goodly house they are raising’) sent a shiver down the spine, sung with raw emotion and urgency. She was a dominant figure from her on, passionate yet fully in control of her phrasing, responding forcefully to O’Shaughnessy’s text.

Elgar’s liberal quotations enhanced the music, none of the melodies present for the sake of it, and each reimagined with O’Shaughnessy’s text. The melodies from the Enigma Variations, the Symphony no.1, the Violin Concerto and, most tellingly, The Dream of Gerontius, all contributed to a reading of really impressive gravity and poise. The BBC Symphony Chorus sang with great unity of purpose, aided by sensitive accompaniment from the orchestra and their heartfelt account of the winsome melodies. Sir Andrew Davis is a master Elgarian, and here his credentials were handsomely reinforced.

You can listen to the new recording by these forces of The Music Makers on Spotify below:

Arcana at the Proms – Prom 35: Martyn Brabbins – Enigma Variations

Idunnu Münch (mezzo-soprano), William Morgan (tenor), Nadine Benjamin (soprano), David Ireland (bass-baritone), English National Opera Chorus, BBC Singers, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins (above)

Various composers Pictured Within: Birthday Variations for M. C. B. (2019, BBC commission: world premiere)
Vaughan Williams Serenade to Music (1938)
Brahms Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny) Op.54 (1871)
Elgar Enigma Variations Op.36 (1899)

Royal Albert Hall, Tuesday 13 August 2019

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
Photo credits Chris Christodoulou

You can listen to this Prom on BBC Sounds here

It was clearly a great idea that the BBC commission a piece to mark Martyn Brabbins’s 60th birthday, this concert also being his 36th appearance at these concerts, as well as featuring 14 composers with whom this most stylistically wide-ranging of conductors has been associated.

The result was Pictured Within: Birthday Variations for M.C.B, each composer contributing a variation on an anonymous theme in what is an inverse take on Elgar’s procedure in his own Variations on an Original Theme – whose ground-plan also furnished the formal framework. Space precludes more detailed discussion, though it is worth noting the degree to which these composers (the full list is here) were inhibited or liberated by their placing in the overall scheme. And as this theme yielded its potential more from a harmonic then melodic or rhythmic angle, the most successful made a virtue of such constraints – not least Judith Weir in her engaging 10th variation and John Pickard in a finale, The Art of Beginning, whose deft mingling of portentousness with humour might yet become the springboard for an entirely new venture.

Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music (premiered in this venue – but not at these concerts – 81 years ago) was conceived for 16 solo singers and the choral alternative inevitably loses some of the original’s intimacy, though not the distinctiveness in its setting of lines drawn from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Joining the BBC Singers and members of the ENO Chorus were participants on the Harwood Young Artists programme, of whom Nadine Benjamin brought a wide-eyed wonder to the soprano solos which motivate the latter stages.

Less often heard in the UK, Brahms’s Song of Destiny is among his most ruminative choral works. Its setting of the eponymous poem by Friedrich Hölderlin might be seen as continuing from A German Requiem in its subdued fatalism, albeit with a more animated central section as hints at that starker resignation which overcame the composer in his later years. Brabbins presided over an unforced yet insightful account of a piece that, for its relative unfamiliarity, has garnered numerous distinguished admirers – among them the composer William Walton.

Closing this concert with Elgar’s Enigma Variations made for an effective symmetry as well as bringing the programme full circle. Brabbins is no stranger to the work and duly galvanized the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in a performance which gave full rein to these widely contrasted portraits (never caricatures!) of the composer’s friends while also ensuring an overall unity to the greater design – with the only lengthy pause coming after a luminous account of the ninth Nimrod variation – that carried through to a finale whose elation was shorn of any bombast. There were various delights on the way, not least a winsome take on the fifth variation, with the numerous instrumental solos eloquently taken. Hard to believe Elgar extended that final variation only at the urging of others, so inevitably does this build to its resplendent ending.

Some might have wondered whether building a full Prom around the birthday of its conductor was excessive but, given the regard in which Brabbins is held and the conviction he invested into each of these pieces, that decision was manifestly justified. Many Happy Returns M.C.B!

Martyn Brabbins has recorded Elgar’s Enigma Variations with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra for Hyperion. More details can be found on their website, or on the YouTube clip below: