By Inge Kjemtrup | From the September-October 2022 issue of Strings magazine
There is only a handful of cellists in the world who are as well-known as Sheku Kanneh-Mason. His memorable performance at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in 2018 has something to do with that. However, two years before, he’d already stepped into the spotlight in his home country of Britain. This was due to two television moments: first, his victory at the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition with a passionate performance of Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto, and second, a documentary about his extraordinary musical family.
Kanneh-Mason is the third of seven siblings raised in Nottingham. His parents were musical, though not professional musicians themselves, and they sacrificed to ensure their children could develop artistically and personally. As his mother, Kadiatu Kanneh-Mason, writes in her fascinating book, House of Music: Raising the Kanneh-Masons, “Playing music was an organic part of family life, rooted in the routine and the wildness of every day.”
“We didn’t decide at the beginning that our seven children would become musicians and pursue professional music careers,” she says. “We still don’t know for certain what paths they will all take and what changing decisions they will each make about their lives.”
Today, at 23, Sheku is carving out his own path, giving concerts all over and making several recordings, including Carnival, made with his siblings, and Muse, with his pianist sister Isata Kanneh-Mason.
His newest recording boasts another catchy one-word title—Song. A conversation with Sheku about Song reveals a man who is as nice (a favorite word) and devoted to his family and his music as his public persona suggests.
The cello and its vocal qualities explain the title, but this very individual collection of pieces reflects Kanneh-Mason’s personal interests. I find out more about what he values when we speak about the set of five preludes written for him by the young British composer Edmund Finnis, who is also a cellist.
“[Finnis] is very interested in subtle and detailed things in the sound, which is something that I spend a lot of time thinking about and exploring,” Kanneh-Mason says. “The collaboration really works well because of that, I think. He’s a very sensitive musician and sensitive to the aspects of music that I care about, like harmony and melody, sound and subtlety, and the vocal qualities of the instrument that’s the cello.”
Song’s repertoire extends far and wide, from Bach, Mendelssohn, Beethoven, and other classical composers to folk, jazz, and pop songs. Many pieces are arrangements, several by the cellist himself, and every track reflects Kanneh-Mason’s joy for the instrument he began playing at age six.
How did he settle on the ordering of the 17 pieces in the album? “It wasn’t possible to think about until I had recorded everything and was able to listen to everything. I wanted an order that instead of grouping things that are similar together, I thought it was better to just embrace the variety.”
As I listened to Song, I became convinced that the real heart of the album is a selection from Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, written while its composer was in a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp in France. Kanneh-Mason and pianist James Baillieu play the poignant, otherworldly fifth movement, “Louange à l’Eternité de Jésus.” Kanneh-Mason confirms that the central placement of the Messiaen was intentional. “That actually was very much the plan. It’s nice that you also noticed that!”
The Messiaen is bracketed by Kanneh-Mason’s arrangements for cello ensemble of the Bach vocal works “Savior of the Nations, Come” and “Come, Sweet Death.” This rich sound of massed cellos is also heard in Simon Parkin’s five-cello arrangement of “Prelúdio (Modinha)” by Villa-Lobos. Arrangements have featured on previous Kanneh-Mason albums. “I would never get the opportunity to play these pieces of music unless I arrange them,” he says. “Like if it’s a piece of music I really love listening to or would love to play, but there doesn’t exist a version for my instrument, then it’s nice to just arrange it myself.”
Kanneh-Mason’s pianist sister Isata, whose career has also been skyrocketing, joins him on two selections from Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words, as well as the Markevitch arrangement of Stravinsky’s Chanson russe and Beethoven’s 12 Variations on “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen.” But Song is not entirely a family affair. “It’s a really nice mix of people and friends and musicians that I’ve worked with before or for the first time and ones I admired. A lot of the cellists are past teachers and mentors of mine, including my current teacher [Hannah Roberts] and my previous teacher [Ben Davies]. It was quite nice to have them all together in one room and play with them.”
Another friend and collaborator is pianist Harry Baker. The two serve up a shimmering version of the classic song “Cry Me a River.” “Harry and I took the song and discussed all of the elements that go into it in terms of the harmony and the shape of the melody, and just explored it in a way that felt natural to us.”
I ask Kanneh-Mason if he is drawn toward improvising. “I’ve always been interested in that,” he says. “It’s a really nice way of getting to know musical language and getting to know my instrument when improvising.”
Kanneh-Mason stepped even more out of his comfort zone in co-writing the song “Same Boat” with singer-songwriter Zak Abel. “Zak is a singer and a good friend of mine, and this is one of the first things we’ve done together because our musical worlds don’t often collide. We wrote the song together at my home last autumn, and I’d not done something like that before. I wanted it such that it was just the sound of voice and different sounds from the cello. So we had to be quite creative in finding a way of having the bass and the melody and the harmony and the different textures. So that was really fun.”
That mixture of fun and virtuosity turns up again in his arrangement of “I Say a Little Prayer,” a Burt Bacharach/Hal David song that was a hit for Dionne Warwick and then Aretha Franklin, and is the final track on Song.
The first pieces Kanneh-Mason recorded for the album come back to his family: his own lyrical arrangements of “Myfanwy” and “Star of the County Down.” He has said that the former song “is one of my absolute favorite melodies, and one that I’ve known for as long as I can remember. I spent a lot of my childhood in Wales with my family and particularly my Welsh grandma, so this is for her.”
“Myfanwy” is arranged for three cellos, with all the parts played by Kanneh-Mason and overdubbed. “It was interesting doing that because when I do the second part, for example, I have in my ear me playing the first part, and it’s actually not so easy to play with myself. Usually when I’m playing with people, I can see them.” I tease Kanneh-Mason that all the performers are playing on the same instrument, and they all have the same approach to fingerings and bowings. “Yeah, yeah, exactly. So there’s nice harmonies.”
This very personal album behind him, Kanneh-Mason is back to his busy concert schedule. I ask what’s on his music stand: Haydn’s D major Concerto, which he is learning for the first time.
If Kanneh-Mason’s performance at a royal wedding wasn’t enough to cement his fame, his appearance in the Last Night of the BBC Proms, televised around the world from London’s Royal Albert Hall, might do so. He’ll be playing Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Deep River, along with a “fun” piece by Karl Davydov, At the Fountain.
At the start of our interview, Kanneh-Mason told me what he loves about Song: “I was able to be very spontaneous and creative, just picking things that I really felt meant a lot to me and would be exciting to record in different ways. And it’s very much like a portrait of who I am up until now, and also looking forward to what I’m interested in exploring further.”
‘Good Times’ in London at Sheku Kanneh-Mason Album Launch
You might think that the seventh floor of a parking lot in south London is a strange place for an album launch by a major classical cellist, but then you’d be forgetting that Sheku Kanneh-Mason is always up for defying convention.
Besides, it’s not the first time Sheku has performed in this “car park,” which hasn’t seen active car-parking service for some time. Today the building hosts a movie theater, a bar, a food stall, and a performance space known as Bold Tendencies. If you go up to the top floor, as I did, you’ll also get a great view of London (and possibly a flashback to the movie Get Carter, although a little internet research revealed that it’s not that garage).
On Thursday night, in the concrete concert space, Sheku and a few musical pals ran through selections from his new Decca Classics recording, Song. Almost every folding chair was occupied by his fans, who clearly respond to the sincerity and warmth that radiate from Sheku’s playing and his low-key stage demeanor.
Two highlights for me: Sheku’s heartfelt playing in a five-cello arrangement of Prelüdio from Villa-Lobos’s Bachianas Brasileiras No. 1 and the Five Preludes for solo cello by Edmund Finnis.
Although he was, rightfully, the focal point of the evening, Sheku took obvious pleasure in collaborating with his fellow cellists, the pianist Harry Baker, and singer Zak Abel.
Any gig that ends with a rousing version of Chic’s “Good Times” will be one to remember! —Inge Kjemtrup
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