Review: Song – Sheku Kanneh-Mason, Cello (2022)

Kanneh-Mason’s latest Decca release very much inhabits the same spirit as his 2018 ‘Inspiration.’ That recording shared various works that had inspired and shaped Mason in his youth. ‘Song’ is meant to give us a sense of the musician he is today, and its wide-ranging and eclectic repertoire makes this his most personal album yet.

The program opens with a tender arrangement of the Irish tune “Star of the County Down.” Its simplicity highlights Kanneh-Mason’s warmly lyrical playing, and signals that this recital is not focused on technical difficulty or acrobatic dexterity. Instead, it focuses on the singing qualities of the cello. This is made clearer in the second track, where Mason’s variety of bow strokes and vibrato underneath the fervid longing of the Welsh song ‘Myfanwy.’ 

His desire to highlight different genres is heard in ‘Lullaby for Kamilla’ (track 3), the music’s more mercurial mood shifts beautifully caught. The melancholic ‘Cry Me a River’ (track 13) is another highlight, its blues-influenced harmonies drawing out a more extrovert emotional response from Mason and pianist Harry Baker. I worried the final track on the program, Burt Bacharach’s ‘I Say a Little Prayer, would be overly saccharine, but Mason’s arrangement is surprisingly successful, playful, and elegantly sweet.

Readers looking for more ‘classical’ repertoire will relish the five-cello arrangement of Villa-Lobos’ ‘Prelúdio’ from his first Bachianas Brasileiras (track 4), Kanneh-Mason’s fulsome lyricism on full display. Beethoven’s ‘12 Variations on “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen”’ (track 5) is also impressive, offering plenty of technical fluency from both cello and piano. The interpretation successfully strikes a balance between Beethoven’s classical and romantic tendencies, though overall the more vivid characterization and improvisatory freedom of Isserlis and Levin (Hyperion) is preferable. Two arrangements of Mendelssohn ‘Songs without Words’ (tracks 6 and 7) feature velvety yet introverted coloring, and Messiaen’s ‘Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus’ from the ‘Quartet for the End of Time’ (track 11) is beautifully played, though its emotional impact is diminished when excerpted from the larger work. 

As I listened I wondered for whom this album was made. It will certainly appeal to Mason’s many fans, and perhaps the variety of genres is meant to attract a crossover audience. Some listeners will surely come seeking more ‘serious’ or ‘substantial’ repertoire, looking to be impressed by technical brilliance and lithe dexterity. But that is Mason’s intent: instead, he invites us into an intimate small room, wanting to share a wide variety of music that has touched him in some important and meaningful way. 

The communicative element of Kanneh-Mason’s music making is compelling, and if there are fewer occasions to be astonished by feats of technical brilliance, there are more moments to be touched by the sensitivity and unfailing beauty of his playing.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason – Cello
Decca, CD 4853169

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