Sheku Kanneh-Mason: Inspiration
It’s easy to forget that aside from being a great composer of operettas, Jacques Offenbach was also a virtuoso cellist. On a recent DG CD (see page 35) Camille Thomas treated us to his rarely heard Introduction, prière et boléro and here the 2016 BBC Young Musician of the Year Sheku Kanneh-Mason offers us ‘Les larmes de Jacqueline’ (‘Jacqueline’s Tears’) from the cello suite Harmonies des bois, as arranged by Werner Thomas-Mifune. Kanneh-Mason’s performance is ‘a tribute to the inspiration that [Jacqueline] du Pré was for me’. The playing here, disarmingly gentle yet tonally seductive, has a songful use of vibrato that recalls the expressive manners of Pierre Fournier and du Pré herself. These are among Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s most personable qualities, not forgetting a sense of intimacy that wins especially high dividends on tracks that involve the CBSO cellos. Another boon is the featured 1610 Amati cello, warmly captured by Decca’s engineers, especially on the CD’s opening tracks, ‘Evening of Roses’ (a Jewish folk song), ‘The Swan’ and Song of the Birds, as well as other shorter pieces.
So far I’ve mentioned, or alluded to, the influences of and tributes to du Pré and Casals, but the programme’s repertory centrepiece honours a great cellist lost to us rather more recently. Mstislav Rostropovich was indelibly associated with the music of Shostakovich, especially the First Cello Concerto, which in this context was recorded live and features the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Mirga GraŽinyte˙-Tyla, a conductor who evidently prompts her players to listen to each other.
Jessica Duchen’s excellent booklet interview finds Sheku commending GraŽinyte˙-Tyla for bringing the best out in each player, and the overall impression is of energetic dialogue and a performance that in its overall profile is marginally more relaxed and certainly more chamber-like than those we already have featuring, for example, Rostropovich himself and Alisa Weilerstein. GraŽinyte˙-Tyla has a keen ear for detail – I’d love to hear her tackle Shostakovich’s Fourth and Fifteenth Symphonies – and the musical bonding between her, Kanneh-Mason and the orchestra is deeply satisfying, though the temple-throbbing rage that Rostropovich and Svetlanov in particular bring to the concerto’s first movement is traded for something altogether less intense. The second movement is the performance’s undoubted highlight.
A most rewarding CD then, sure evidence that we should henceforth be on the lookout for any performances, either recorded or live, that involve Sheku Kanneh-Mason. How about the Brahms cello sonatas for starters, maybe with Nicholas Angelich? That could be quite something.