Artist: Sheku Kanneh-Mason, London Symphony Orchestra
Label: Decca Classics
Formats: CD, LP, Digital
Release date: January 10, 2020
London-born cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason rose to prominence in the UK after winning the BBC Young Musician Award in 2016 and received international attention for his performance at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in 2018. A member of the remarkably talented Kanneh-Mason family, 20-year-old Sheku has often performed with his six brothers and sisters, all classically trained musicians between the ages of 10-23. His debut album, Inspiration, was released in 2016 on the prestigious Decca Classics label (his sister, pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason, is also signed to Decca). On his sophomore album, Elgar, Sheku performs Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor, Op. 85 with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, plus several short chamber pieces by Elgar and other composers. As a testament to the number of people inspired by the young musician, Elgar is already a best seller, making Kanneh-Mason the first classical musician to break into the Top 10 of the UK album charts in over 30 years, a position currently shared with grime star Stormzy.
One of the classic works for the instrument, Elgar’s Cello Concerto captured Kanneh-Mason’s attention at a very early age as he watched DVD performances of the great British cellist Jacqueline du Pré. In a recent interview he explained, “I started learning to play it with a score in my music lessons when I was around seven years old, picking up sections of it from listening to recordings then recreating it for my teacher.” Kanneh-Mason gives an emotional reading of the concerto on this recording, though none would likely argue that it’s a definitive performance of the work. Continuing the Elgar theme, Kanneh-Mason performs “Nimrod” from the Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36 (Enigma) in a dense arrangement by Simon Parkin for six cellos, as well as Parkin’s arrangement of Elgar’s Romance Op. 62, in which he is joined by the Heath Quartet and double bassist Toby Hughes.
Kanneh-Mason opens the album with his own arrangement for solo cello of the traditional song, Blow the Wind Southerly, and concludes with a number of short encores. One highlight is a beautiful duet with Brazilian guitarist Plinio Fernandes on the folksong Scarborough Fair (arr. by Parkin). Sheku’s brother, violinist Braimah Kanneh-Mason, joins him on a lovely rendition of Ernest Bloch’s Prelude B. 63 for string quartet, and Braimah’s arrangement of Ernest Bloch’s From Jewish Life for violin and cello offers the two brothers an opportunity to perform in a duo. Also featured is Frank Bridge’s Spring Song (in an excellent performance with the Heath Quartet), Fauré’s Elégie in C Minor, Op. 24 (arr. Parkin), and for a beautiful finale, Klengel’s Hymnus for 12 Cellos, Op.57.
Sheku Kanneh-Mason has accomplished what few other classical musicians have been able to pull off: creating a large and diverse fan base among those who don’t typically listen to classical music. Though his tone may still lack depth, no doubt Sheku will continue to mature as a cellist and inspire countless young musicians along the way.
Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss