Prom 10 – Sheku & Isata Kanneh-Mason – Cello Sonatas by Beethoven, Barber & Rachmaninov

Sonata in C for Piano and Cello, Op.102/1

Sonata in C-minor for Cello and Piano


Sonata in G-minor for Cello and Piano, Op.19

Sheku Kanneh-Mason (cello) & Isata Kanneh-Mason (piano)

Reviewed by: David Truslove

Reviewed: 6 September, 2020
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Recital recorded on August 27; first broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on September 6; this review is of the relay on BBC Four, September 11

Chamber music in the cavernous space of an empty Royal Albert Hall may seem to fly in the face of musical sense, but this recital by the Kanneh-Mason duo provided a shrink-wrapped experience of close-ups and compressed dynamics. The pleasure of having such fine musicians in one’s living room was diluted by an overdose of superlatives from presenter Tom Service and guest Joanna MacGregor whose bite-sized commentaries filled out the programme’s ninety minutes.

It’s hard to imagine a cellist-pianist duo more mutually compatible than these siblings each with their distinct musical personality. The programme comprised works dedicated to or written for a friend of each of the four composers.

Relish for Beethoven’s C-major Cello Sonata was evident from the start in a tension-filled account that unfolded with eloquence, passion and spontaneity, a partnership of equals fully responsive to Beethoven’s characterful invention and unpredictable moods. There was no shortage of sweet-toned tenderness or playful exchanges in the second of the two movements, phrasing and intonation impeccable throughout.

If this concentrated work belongs to Beethoven’s ‘late’ period, Samuel Barber’s 1932 Sonata (written when he was twenty-two and shortly after graduating from the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia) looks backwards, its drama and lyricism rooted in the nineteenth-century, even quoting from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. This performance did as much to underline Barber’s melancholic strain as his irascibility, the first movement’s ardour was amply explored, and its pugnacious piano writing coaxed no mean response from Isata. The cello’s heart-on-sleeve rhapsodising in the Adagio, with its pre-echoes of ‘Sure on this shining night’, brought nostalgia yet offset by impish vigour and, arguably, gainsays the tired old notion that Barber was an unashamed Romantic. True, there’s a Brahmsian sweep to some of the writing, but the Kanneh-Masons brought the volatile Finale to life, its restless energy communicated with loving care and attention.

Likewise, Frank Bridge’s gem of Edwardiana that is Mélodie (1911) charmed with a detailed reading that illuminated craftsmanship and expressive writing with warmth and affection, each player well-attuned to the piece’s sensibility.

From one composer whose chamber music won him national acclaim early on to one whose sole Cello Sonata (1901) was his final essay in the medium. Rachmaninov’s work makes virtuosic demands on the pianist, met here with light-fingered aplomb. Dreamy introspection led to a controlled Allegro moderato, somewhat lacking in turbulence if not fluent expression, refined rather than rollicking yet played with conviction. Following a thrilling Scherzo and plenty of opulent tone in contrasting passages, a beautifully eloquent Andante won me over. An exuberant Finale pushed away any sense of earlier reserve, explosive and consoling gestures naturally integrated into a reading characterised by superb chemistry and poetic sensitivity.

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