Isata and Sheku Kanneh-Mason interview: ‘When you start to have a career, it looks as though it has happened suddenly but it hasn’t. It takes many years’

Jeremy Nicholas
Tuesday, January 11, 2022

For their first recording as a duo, the cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason and his pianist-sister Isata have embraced cello sonatas by Rachmaninov and Barber, plus arrangements of songs by both composers, they tell Jeremy Nicholas

Isata and Sheku Kanneh-Mason (photo: James Hole)

Few reading these pages will not already know of the remarkable Kanneh-Mason family – or have heard one or other of the septet of talented young musicians who have charmed, inspired and lit up the musical world in the past few years. Sheku, the cellist, is the best known of the siblings, but even with the acres of press coverage he has received, recognition among those less interested in classical music is hazy. Surprising as this may be to readers of Gramophone, it is a salutary reminder to those of us who are passionate about classical music that it remains a minority interest. I told a couple of friends that I was interviewing two of the Kanneh-Masons. One looked blank until I prodded: ‘Did you see that TV documentary about them? This House Is Full of Music? Seven children in the same family? All musicians?’ ‘Oh yes,’ came the response, ‘amazing, aren’t they?’ The other friend (on a different occasion) responded only after I queried whether he had watched the Harry and Meghan wedding. ‘Oh him. Yes. The black cellist. Wasn’t he wonderful? So expressive. Sorry, I didn’t know that was his name.’

So just in case you have been living, like my friends, on planet Zog for the past few years, we are talking about Isata (25) – piano, Braimah (24) – violin, Sheku (23) – cello, Konya (21) – piano and violin, Jeneba (19) – piano and cello, Aminata (16) – violin, and Mariatu (12) – cello. Today, I am talking via Zoom to Isata and Sheku about ‘Muse’, their first recording as a duo for Decca. This is an allocated press day for them, set up by the label, whereby they do one interview after another while trying to maintain an interest in answering questions from a succession of journalists. They are sitting side by side some way from the camera and microphone in what seems to be a large broom cupboard. I discover only sometime later that the day before our interview Sheku and Isata lost their beloved grandfather. I salute their handling of their commitments with such professionalism and grace.

With only a short time allotted and pleasantries over, it’s down to business – to talk about the music on the album. As we are coming to expect from the Kanneh-Masons, it is not always the familiar and predictable that they choose to play. While the Rachmaninov Cello Sonata is much loved and recorded (2021 is the 120th anniversary of its composition), the Barber Cello Sonata (1932) is a comparative rarity. Was this a project born out of lockdown?

‘No, we chose these two works as a recital programme to perform live,’ Sheku reveals. ‘We did a tour in 2019 in the US, where we performed both sonatas. We did a lot of performances, the audiences liked it and it felt very, very –’ Isata interjects: ‘It worked really well.’ With the onset of the pandemic, many concerts in which they were due to play the two sonatas were cancelled. ‘So’, continues Sheku, ‘we had this repertoire that we’d really worked on and invested time in, and we wanted to make something of it. So then we decided to make an album – and it also gave us something to really focus on and work towards during the first lockdown.’

Substantial though both works are, the album needed something extra if only to separate the lengthy sonatas. What would complement them? Their idea was to play a selection of songs by the two composers, arranged for cello and piano. Isata explains that they had already played one of the Rachmaninov songs in lockdown, liked the concept and decided to discover more Rachmaninov songs specifically to put on the album. ‘We didn’t know any Barber songs, actually,’ admits Isata. ‘So that was a nice discovery – and there are some really beautiful ones.’ These were arranged by Simon Parkin. I wondered who made the Rachmaninov arrangements. ‘Well, I use the term “arrangements” quite loosely because all we did was take the vocal score and Sheku played the top line – maybe an octave lower.’

Were they worried that the lesser-known Barber Sonata with its sometimes acerbic language would be too much for those fans who might not necessarily be into classical chamber music? ‘I think it is harmonically and rhythmically complex,’ says Sheku, ‘but what’s great about performing it is that the drama is very much unrestrained. It really doesn’t hold back in terms of its dramatic elements. It’s very compact music. There’s a lot of rhythmic development but each section seems to be very short in terms of the journey from beginning to climax. It happens over a very, very short space of time, so it’s constantly engaging in that sense. There’s a lot of variety, a lot of youthful passion and energy. I think that’s what draws us to this music.’

I suggest that the most difficult section – the greatest challenge in terms of technique and coordination – might be the central Presto section of the slow movement. They both look at each other and laugh. ‘Yes!’ agrees Isata. ‘We worked on that section a lot. It’s funny, but actually I think that one of the hardest things in concert is when you have the adrenalin in your stomach and you know you only have one go. But in the recording …’ (she pauses to give a wry laugh), ‘it went quite well.’ Meaning there were several takes, I tease? ‘No, actually, for some reason we got that section in one or two takes, I think it’s because we worried about it and practised it, so by the time it came to the recording, that section wasn’t as stressful as we thought it was going to be.’

Listening to the Rachmaninov, I wondered if there had been any edits at all, it is such an electrifying performance with all the energy and risk-taking of a live concert. ‘Yes, it was a one-take wonder!’ Sheku chips in with a laugh. ‘No,’ he quickly adds, ‘I’m joking.’ Isata takes over seamlessly: ‘I think Jonathan Allen, the recording editor and producer, always organises things in such a wonderful way that if there’s something that needs a patch we’ll do quite a big section and really kind of get into it as though we were doing a concert again and again and again, rather than nitpicking. I think that’s what comes across. He likes to use sections that are as big as possible. It’s a way of capturing in the studio that overall energy of a concert.’

I comment on the fact that the string snap on the very last note of the Rachmaninov has been left in on the recording, which gives it a further feeling of a live reading. ‘Yes, well, I don’t like to “de-noise” too much,’ says Sheku. ‘I like the feeling that the microphones are very close to us in the room – that you can hear the breathing and extra sounds. I guess my favourite recordings have always had that. When you listen to Jacqueline du Pré, for example, you hear the extra noise, the sound of the fingers – it sounds very real.’

Listening to the playing on this recording, with its mixture of spontaneity, risk-taking, affecting heart-on-sleeve emotion and innate stylistic understanding, plus the sheer exuberance of the music-making, reminded me of some of the great artists of the past – indeed, the distant past. I guessed that they enjoy listening to historical recordings; Sheku’s sound – don’t ask me why – has always put me in mind of Piatigorsky. Sheku laughs. ‘Yes, that’s very, very true!’ Am I right, I press? ‘Very, very right. I love Piatigorsky’s playing. He recorded the Barber Sonata actually’ – of which revelation your interviewer has to admit his total ignorance. ‘It’s beautiful. Amazing,’ says Sheku. Then another surprise: ‘I’ve always loved Menuhin particularly, and Casals, but to be honest, of earlier players, I listen mainly to pianists: Frederic Lamond, Friedman, Rachmaninov. I love Lamond’s Beethoven sonatas!’ Here your interviewer becomes overexcited. ‘So do I!’ he cries. ‘Are we the only two who do?’ (They’re available on APR, by the way, if you’re interested).

Isata shares her brother’s passion for Rachmaninov’s playing as a pianist. ‘I like Artur Schnabel. I like Horowitz, of course. I also like lots of newer people. I listen to lots of Vladimir Ashkenazy and Martha Argerich. Those are the two from my childhood – I grew up listening to them.’

Growing up, how did (or do) seven children practise at the same time without driving each other mad? There are, it transpires, four pianos in the house, two of them in one room, so three siblings can practise at the same time. ‘Three of us are first-study piano,’ Isata explains, ‘so we practise on one piano each and rotate to get the best one. Sheku and Braimah will practise in a bedroom, someone else in the kitchen – but we all practise at the same time.’ Can they shut each other out? ‘Well, we have to! But you can’t really. You can hear it, but you just get used to focusing on what you are doing.’

I am intrigued to know more about their parents. Their mother, Kadiatu, came to the UK from Sierra Leone in 1970 aged eight. Megan, her Welsh mother, lived in Africa with her teacher husband, Bernard Kanneh. After he died from a heart condition, she returned home to her Welsh village with her four children. Kadiatu grew up to study English at the University of Southampton, where Stuart Mason from London (his parents were born in Antigua but came to the UK in 1958) was studying physics. Both of them, admitted Kadiatu in an interview, ‘endured the same kind of systemic racism as any UK immigrant at the time’. To learn from her compelling memoir House of Music: Raising the Kanneh-Masons (2020) the extent and nature of the abuse she suffered growing up makes one shudder with embarrassment.

The Kanneh-Mason family

Stuart Mason became a luxury hotel business manager. Kadiatu, with a doctorate under her belt, became a lecturer at the University of Birmingham. They both love music – Stuart made it to Grade 8 piano, and Kadiatu reached Grade 7 piano and Grade 5 on both clarinet and violin. Having set up home in Nottingham, they decided not to go down the hothouse route with their children by sending them to specialist music schools, but opted for state education in Nottingham at a school where music was integrated into the curriculum. If ever one wanted evidence of the need for music to be given the same importance as maths, English or history, the Kanneh-Masons provide it.

That said, I wonder how easy most of us would find living in a house with seven children all practising one instrument or another somewhere – Chopin clashing with Rachmaninov clashing with Mozart clashing with … At some point, wouldn’t you go quietly mad? Or nip off to the pub for a bit of peace and quiet? Just for an hour or so, to escape? It seems not. Think of the organisational skills behind feeding, driving, schooling and generally meeting the demands of seven children without any musical skills! And then add their constant need to make music either singly or with one another. Their mother, I suggest, must be so laid-back.

‘She is very strong, very hard-working and has sacrificed a lot,’ Isata acknowledges, before adding, with a laugh, ‘but she’s definitely not laid-back. She’s very clever, passionate about music, passionate about giving her children as many opportunities as she possibly can. She and my dad are the same. They both worked very hard and organised it all. It was overwhelmingly busy – it still is; but they just take everything day by day.’

Braimah, Isata and Sheku Kanneh-Mason

Are they surprised at their success? Isata answers, ‘From a young age we knew we wanted to be musicians – in a childish way, where you say that without (obviously) knowing how it’s going to happen. You don’t really think about what it will take to get there. Then it was just gradual. A lot of hard work. When you start to have a career, it looks as though it has happened suddenly but it hasn’t. It takes many years.’

Sheku’s breakthrough moment was when he won BBC Young Musician in 2016, becoming the first black musician to achieve this since the competition’s launch in 1978. That was when the concerts started to come and the record label signed him up. But it was after playing at the royal wedding that he became known internationally (Meghan herself made the phone call to invite him to play). Isata’s breakthrough was after her first album for Decca: ‘Romance: The Piano Music of Clara Schumann’. Highly acclaimed, it entered the UK classical charts at No 1 when it was released in July 2019. ‘That’s when I started doing more and more solo things, after that album. They had heard me doing some chamber concerts with Sheku, so that’s how it all came about.’

What next for the talented two? They have been playing the Bridge and Britten cello sonatas for the last six months and plan to continue that as a programme throughout next year. After that, there are the Khachaturian and Shostakovich ones to look forward to. Both musicians are back to full-time concert-giving, so it’s all about scheduling when they can play together and when they can’t. ‘I don’t know in number how many concerts I have this year,’ says Isata, ‘but I’m touring with ECHO’ – and by that she means as a Rising Star of the European Concert Hall Organisation – ‘which is a programme that has lots of concert halls round Europe and the UK. Then we’re doing another tour together in America in the spring.’

And Sheku? His sister gives him an it’s-your-turn-now nudge. ‘Er, yes. I’m performing mainly in Europe and America.’ And what concertos will you be playing? ‘Dvořák and Elgar are the ones I have always played – I’ve done them a lot. But I’m learning the Shostakovich Second Concerto, which I’ll be playing from spring next year. I’m looking forward to it. It’s a great piece.’

Isata and Sheku Kanneh-Mason (photo: James Hole)

One thing that separates the Kanneh-Masons from many others is their ability to think outside the box and play music that is not always mainstream repertoire. Where did this musical curiosity come from? ‘We grew up surrounded by so many different types of music,’ says Isata. ‘We’d improvise together. With core repertoire everyone can bring their own thing to it, even when it’s been played many times before, but there’s always something satisfying about playing something that you know there aren’t many recordings of out there.’

These two most high-profile members of the family are already role models for the next generation – the Emma Raducanus of the classical music world. ‘It’s very rewarding when someone comes up to you after the concert and says they have just started learning the cello or they want to start learning the cello after seeing me play,’ says the affable Sheku. ‘That’s a lovely feeling, because I remember doing that when I went to the concert hall in Nottingham: I saw performers that I really, really admired, and wanted to speak to them afterwards. I remember one concert where Guy Johnston was playing Saint-Saëns’s First Cello Concerto. I was on the very front row, almost underneath his spike. And that was such a special moment, one that really inspired me. To play that role for other people is very exciting.’

Read the review of Isata and Sheku Kanneh-Mason's album 'Muse'

This article originally appeared in the November 2021 issue of Gramophone magazine. Never miss an issue – subscribe today

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