Sheku Kanneh-Mason interview: ‘Just playing beautifully is kind of boring. I want to play with as much character as possible’

Monday, January 13, 2020

At just 20 years old Sheku Kanneh-Mason takes inspiration from the great cellists of the distant past – and his models for Elgar’s Cello Concerto are no exception, finds Richard Bratby

Sheku Kanneh-Mason (photo: Jake Turney)

Anyone who’s anxious about the future of classical music should stand in the foyer of London’s Royal Academy of Music (RAM) shortly before nine in the morning. Students hurry through, carrying violin cases and music folders; a soprano trills down a corridor and a double bass lumbers awkwardly by, with only its owner’s legs visible as they head to a lesson or practice studio. This is the future right here: the next generation of musicians, energetically mastering their art. And amid this swirl of young talent, the only thing that makes Sheku Kanneh-Mason stand out as he pushes through the front door, cello strapped to his back, is the fact that he has an assistant with him, tugging his travelling case.

She’s only here because I am. Not that it’s exactly normal for third-year undergraduates to have press interviews, any more than it is for them to have records out on Decca; or a diary of international engagements that will take them to Frankfurt later the same day, and then to Germany, Sweden, France, Italy, Canada and the USA. But unless you’ve been living in a hermitage for the last few years, you’ll already know that Kanneh-Mason is not exactly your usual young cellist.

He’s the son of parents from Antigua and Sierra Leone, and grew up in Nottingham with six siblings, each of them a strikingly gifted musician in their own right. They appeared on Britain’s Got Talent in 2015 – not an obvious career move for a young classical musician. Then Sheku won the 2016 BBC Young Musician competition, played at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex in May 2018, and saw his debut recording – of Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto – climb to Number One in the US Billboard Emerging Artists chart. I’ll repeat that: this is the cellist who, in 2018, took Shostakovich to the top of the US pop charts. (He knocked the rapper Lil Baby off pole position.) And here he is, still only 20, sitting in the boardroom at the RAM, having just recorded Elgar’s Cello Concerto with Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra. To say that expectations are high is like saying that Netrebko and Kaufmann have a knack for selling tickets.

I would never want to copy what someone else does, because then it’s not genuine, and it’s never going to be

Sheku Kanneh-Mason

The press release makes much of the idea that he was inspired by Jacqueline du Pré. Well, obviously: he and every other cellist on the planet. Yet whenever I’ve heard him play the Elgar, whether on disc, or live in Bristol in 2018, du Pré has not been the comparison that’s sprung to mind. When I say this, he thinks for a moment before responding: ‘I get inspiration from different places. But I think it’s also the piece itself. It’s so … I don’t know – so detailed in the way it’s written. I studied a lot of the harmony to build my own way of playing the piece. And of course, I’m very inspired by Jacqueline du Pré’s playing and approach to music in general, but not necessarily in that way – I would never want to copy what someone else does, because then it’s not genuine, and it’s never going to be.’

Genuineness, you sense, is a quality that Kanneh-Mason prizes. There can’t have been a young classical musician in living memory who’s found themselves at the centre of so much international media interest (that royal wedding performance was watched by some 29 million TV viewers in the US alone). But there are no pre-prepped answers, no polished anecdotes; no sense of the hardened media performer. It’s exactly like talking to any other intelligent, sensitive but slightly nervous student musician. So how did he find his own way into the Elgar?

‘Just playing it, and listening to the harmony, tells you a lot. The way the chords subtly move and change; there’s a lot of expression in those chords alone. The concerto is a mixture of things, including confusion. Particularly in the second movement, there’s a kind of unsettled quality. Maybe a lot of people see that movement as humorous, but I think it’s more unsettled and unstable than humorous. And the first movement I think is very sad, but not always outwardly sad. And maybe that’s what Elgar was like as a person. There’s a lot of loneliness and sadness, but not in an obvious, “out there”, way.’

And, of course, Kanneh-Mason has had a collaborator with a track record: Rattle has recorded the Elgar Concerto before, with Truls Mørk and Sol Gabetta. This was Kanneh-Mason’s first time working with Rattle in the studio, and it seems to have been a happy experience. ‘I really loved working with him because it felt so free. He always makes it very clear what his intention is, and that’s really lovely to play with.

‘We were constantly discovering the piece as we were playing it. We weren’t so much stopping and doing small chunks, as playing through whole movements and seeing how they came out. That meant that we could explore the concerto through playing it – and that’s the best way. And yes, it’s exciting when ideas come together. So much of what makes this piece amazing is how the orchestral writing interacts with the solo cello. It’s rarely just the melody and accompaniment: there are a lot of voices going on.’

Kanneh-Mason with Rattle and the LSO during the Elgar recording sessions at Abbey Road Studios, London, November 2019 (photo: Dominic Nicholls)

It’s a revealing observation, and an intriguing one for a player who’s being presented and promoted as a star soloist. With Kanneh-Mason, there are always other voices going on: how could there not be, when he grew up with six other musicians? We’ll return to that. Meanwhile, he’s mentioned that he gets inspiration from various places: before we leave the Elgar, could he give us some idea of which players (apart from du Pré) fire his imagination? His response is not, perhaps, the one that you might expect from a player who was born in 1999 and who – for all his international fame – has yet to graduate from college.

‘I’m listening a lot to Beatrice Harrison. I love her playing, and its vocal quality. I guess what’s special about string playing particularly around that time is that it’s not just like singing but almost like talking with the instrument. I think that’s what makes it special, and I’ve learnt a lot from recordings of that period.’

This takes us on to the rest of the disc. There’s the obvious pairing of Elgar’s Romance for bassoon and orchestra (a piece long since annexed by cellists, and here arranged for string ensemble), and Fauré’s Élégie (arranged for cello ensemble). But there’s also a selection of pieces which have a distinctly ‘retro’ feel. Klengel’s Hymnus of 1920 is a super-saturated slice of late Romantic lushness for 12 cellos: beloved by cellists, but little known to the wider public. Then there’s Bridge’s Spring Song (originally for violin and piano, arranged here for string ensemble) and – most intriguing of all – two pieces by that most unfashionable of 20th-century masters, Bloch: the Prélude for string quartet, and ‘Prayer’ (the first movement of From Jewish Life). With an older player you might attribute such choices to nostalgia. Kanneh-Mason, however, has simply been digging deep into his instrument’s heritage, and has discovered that this music genuinely speaks to him.

‘I wanted to record pieces that are similar to the Elgar in a certain way. I mean, the Klengel was written just a year after the Elgar Concerto. Lots of the other pieces I chose because I was inspired by recordings that were made around the early 1920s. I was listening to the Bloch Prélude in a recording by the London String Quartet – I think it dates from the late 1920s or early 1930s. And it’s just really, really special playing on that recording, and I fell in love with the piece because of that. It works nicely with the Elgar Concerto, because that’s exactly the kind of playing that Elgar would have been hearing when he wrote the piece. You can learn a lot from different recordings, and particularly from historical recordings.

‘The most important thing is that you’re communicating and saying something, and how you do that is going to be different for each player. Just playing beautifully is kind of boring. I want to play with as much character as possible. Often, by just playing beautifully, you are missing the actual music. But as long as there is a clear and strong message with your playing …’

There’s certainly a clear and strong message on Kanneh-Mason’s latest disc, and he admits to a special fondness for the lost art of the perfectly pitched, expressive encore. He’s arranged a few lollipops himself: his graceful solo cello version of Bob Marley’s ‘No Woman, No Cry’ is one of the highlights of his first disc. ‘People used to do whole albums and whole recitals of these tuneful miniatures. It’s not so common now. But they’ve got so much music in them and so much subtlety – they’re pieces that have a very distinct character and mood. They can be just as special and rewarding to play or listen to as a whole sonata.’

To these ears, anyway, the two Bloch performances really stand out – really possess that quality of speaking volumes in a few eloquent minutes. It’s surely no coincidence that they’re not purely solo items. Kanneh-Mason is merely the cellist in the quartet that plays the Prélude; meanwhile ‘Prayer’ is his own arrangement for violin and cello – performed here with his older brother Braimah, currently a fellow student at the RAM. Sheku has already spoken about his collaboration with Rattle, and his own fascination with what lies beneath the solo line in a concerto. He’s starting to sound very like one of nature’s chamber musicians – and in fact, when I meet him, his piano trio, with Braimah on the violin and their sister Isata on the piano, is due to perform at London’s Wigmore Hall the following month. Collaboration, it turns out, is how he first made music in the family home in Mapperley Park, Nottingham; and it’s what motivates him most strongly even now.

‘I mean, it definitely wasn’t our parents’ plan for all of us to play,’ he explains. ‘They just really loved music, so they gave us the opportunity to have lessons and we all really enjoyed it. We had a piano in the house and Isata started having lessons and I guess we all saw her doing that and followed after. But it was never like we had to. I played lots of piano trios with my sister and brother – there’s so much amazing repertoire, and you learn so much from playing in small ensembles that you certainly don’t get from solo playing. That intense level of listening, and being spontaneous and responding to what someone else says in an intimate way. I love that. And you learn from each other’s playing as well. It’s always special playing with people you know really, really well.’

The sheer quantity of musicianship in this single, mutually supportive, family has generated astonishing results. Isata’s first recording – a Clara Schumann anthology – was released in the summer: ‘It ranks among the most charming and engaging debuts I can recall,’ wrote Jeremy Nicholas in these pages. Now Braimah has joined his brother on disc. ‘Braimah is very thoughtful in his playing, and I’ve learnt a lot from him,’ says Sheku, one year his junior. ‘When he listens to my playing he always says the perfect thing to help me improve it. Isata is similar in that way. She’s very creative and it’s nice playing with her because we can be very free and spontaneous. There’s always a feeling of trust when we’re playing together as a trio.’ No sibling rivalry? ‘No, it’s not like that. We’ve always learnt from each other.’

I think the main thing that I can do is inspire people to see classical music as something that they can also do

Sheku Kanneh-Mason

The spirit of music as something shared, a source of mutual strength and growth, has also underpinned his involvement in Chineke!, the orchestra founded in 2015 by double bassist Chi-chi Nwanoku to give greater visibility to black and minority ethnic musicians in the UK. ‘I think the main thing that I can do is inspire people to see classical music as something that they can also do,’ says Kanneh-Mason. ‘Because I think if you are a young black person, for example, you might find it difficult to imagine yourself as a classical musician because you would only rarely see someone who looks like yourself doing it. It’s clearly no fault of the classical music world: I don’t know a single musician who would give a black player fewer opportunities to get ahead in classical music. It’s more about having the inspiration to do it. And seeing Chineke! performing at the highest level is important. There is no point showing diversity in classical music if it’s not also at the highest level.’

And now he’s off to Frankfurt; and then back to studying at the RAM with his teacher Hannah Roberts – intensely aware, despite the whirlwind around him, that his career is still so new that … well, that he’s only now starting to learn the Dvořák Concerto. Any favourite recordings? Kanneh-Mason pulls another surprise out of the bag. ‘Yeah, Piatigorsky’s second movement is one of my favourites. I just love his sound; and the unique flexibility of his timing, I think, is really cool. He plays a lot like Heifetz. A very fast vibrato, that kind of shimmers. The sound is always travelling in a certain way.’ A cellist who tops the 21st-century pop charts, taking Heifetz, Piatigorsky and Beatrice Harrison as his inspiration? If that doesn’t give you faith in the future, it’s hard to imagine what will.

This article originally appeared in the January 2020 issue of Gramophone. Never miss an issue – subscribe today!

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