Saturday 1 December 2018

A superstar is born

About two years ago I attended a concert at Liverpool's Philharmonic Hall. The main attraction was a shy young man playing the cello, who had just won the BBC Young Musician of the Year award, Sheku Kanneh-Mason. He delivered a polished performance, technically secure, at times allowing the audience a glimpse of things to come. He was helped at the conductor's pult by the firm leadership of Vasily Petrenko who is not one for musical extravangance but clear and sound delivery.

What a difference a year, or two, makes. The Royal Wedding, assorted media performances later and, yesterday, the same person filled the Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool to the rafters with people who were dying to hear him (and take a picture on their iphone) at a solo performance, accompanied on the piano by his sister Isata Kanneh-Mason.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason at The T.J. Martell Foundation in October 2018
As I wrote in 2016, there was never any doubt that Kanneh-Mason had the potential for cello stardom. His almost flawless technique prepared him for a steep musical career. The question was how he would navigate the stumbling blocs on the way, not least those moments of fame which were bound to come him as a rare example of a gifted black musician in a country that was (and still is) crying out for more diversity amongst its performers and audiences. As everyone knows who has been in a concert hall in the UK, auditoria here are filled with people from the same demographic: white, middle class and well into pension age, presumably a legacy of the brutal cull of secondary school music teaching in the 1980s. So it is no surprise that a country hungry for a fresh face embraced Kanneh-Mason (and his family) with open arms.

Yet with fame, especially of the Royal Wedding type, come problems and it was an open question whether Kanneh-Mason would be able to walk the fine line between cashing in on the popular classical music promise and the hard slog of the concert hall performances and studios.

As more recordings of him were released, the worries increased. Most of the pieces were pleasant yet musically inconsequential nods to popular taste. The real test would be whether he would develop his repertoire and further take on the modern classics, as he did with so enormous success with Shostakovich's cello concerto. The British say that the proof of the pudding is in the eating and last night, the pudding was being served and it was delicious indeed.

The evening started with an dynamic delivery of Boccherini's Cello Sonata No 6. Brother and sister displayed a special rapport which helped with the rapid tempi changes and Haydnesque flourishes.

The next piece was Puolenc's Cello Sonata. I must have heard it now perhaps a hundred times, most notably played by Daniel Mueller Schott and Robert Kulek. Whilst studio recordings hugely privilege the cello, as studio technicians can dim the piano sound and heighten the prominence of the cello, both cello and piano were perfectly synchronised last night and Isata Sheku-Mason took the foot of the pedal in the right moments to allow her brother to shine.

Poulenc's second movement is the Cavatine, a beautiful instrumental aria. This was where technical prowess was to be transformed into personality and, whilst I would have loved a less hurried, more longing interpretation from Kanneh-Mason, he clearly put his own stamp on the piece which means he has now joined the musical conversation about the piece's interpretation in his own right, and that at age 19. 

The fourth movement of Poulenc's Sonata was probably the trickiest for both to navigate and both may agree that there were moments that needed extra work still. But even in those moments of strain, if anything, Sheku Kanneh-Mason appears only to be the victim of his own success. His technique is so polished, his dexterity so extraordinary that he sometimes rushes some of the passages instead of slowing them down. Sometimes less is more, and since the first bars of the fourth movement are fiendishly difficult for the piano too, a slower pace may have worked wonders.

Debussy's Cello Sonata and Brahms' Cello Sonata No 2 followed after the interval. Both brother and sister offered a muscular interpretation of Brahms, and Sheku an energic and forceful pizzicato in Debussy's Sonata's second movement. There were perhaps moments of technical brilliance that lacked the emotional urgency in Debussy but to say that is to take nothing away from a superlative performance of a promising cellist superstar in the making.

Brahms' Sonata was perhaps the most difficult piece for the hall. Liverpool's Philharmonic has the acoustic characteristics of a barn hall and solo instruments are helped greatly by sparsely instrumented passages. In turn, where composers pull out all the stops, the sound easily gets mixed in with its own echo from the bare walls. So, whilst Poulenc and Debussy were perfect for the hall, Brahms' Sonata got slightly drowned in its own reverberations. Brahms' was clearly a piece ideal for the more intimate, originally scheduled location of the concert. (It didn't help that there is always somebody who finds it difficult to switch off their mobile phone.)

I tend to close my eyes during performances since the various antics of performers (conductors and soloists alike) interest me little. Last night however I couldn't do this. Kanneh-Mason's technical skills were never in doubt but what he now offers audiences is starting to become a musical personality, a way of playing that is his very own. His famous pout notwithstanding (he has publically commented on it) his way of playing now clearly shows that he is one with his cello. More so, he dabbles in displays of full control over the instrument yet also developed a way to indicate critical distance to it. This creative tension between the player and instrument, a simultaneous unity and separation, is riveting to observe.

In Sheku Kanneh-Mason we are blessed with that rare thing, the career of a musical superstar unfolding in front of our eyes.

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