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Isata Kanneh-Mason and the Power of Clara Schumann

Isata Kanneh-Mason
Robin Clewley
Isata Kanneh-Mason

Pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason’s awe and reverence for Clara Schumann made for an easy decision on how to focus her debut album.

Not every journey turns into a mission. But that’s what seems to have happened for 24-year-old pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason, whose exploration of the music of the prodigious 19th-century composer/pianist Clara Schumann began as an attraction and developed into a deep reverence for the power of her music and the strength of her spirit. As Kanneh-Mason writes in the liner notes:

“It’s fascinating that 200 years ago Clara could maintain such a long career as a pianist while having a large family and coping with the difficulties of her husband’s mental illness… She was a strong compositional voice that sounds like no one else. You can tell from it what a romantic person she was, but also how strong she was. These are two defining strands to her character.”

Isata knows the dynamics of a big family. She’s one of seven children, all musicians, including her brother, cellist Sheku, who was heard around the world at Harry and Meghan’s Royal Wedding.  Isata is a post-graduate student at London’s Royal Academy and has won a bundle of awards for her insightful musicianship and her technical flair. Now she’s made her debut recording on the prestigious Decca label, passionately placing Clara Schumann in the spotlight.

The CD begins with Schumann’s bold and virtuosic Piano Concerto (which she began to compose at the age of 13). Conductor Holly Mathieson and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic are fully on board with Kanneh-Mason’s high-voltage performance, driven by powerfully etched octave passages and hushed phrases that nearly dissolve into the atmosphere. There is a satisfying sense of breathing in Kanneh-Mason’s playing, allowing as much for lingering and melting as for charging undaunted into the fray.

There are some true treasures here, including the three Romances for violin and piano, Op. 22, that Kanneh-Mason plays beautifully with Elena Urioste (tracks 8-10). Listen to the warm-hearted confession that happens in No. 1, and the flexibility and capriciousness of No. 2.

Also included is the Piano Sonata that somehow languished unpublished until the 1990’s. It was a gift for Robert that Clara wrote in the early years of their marriage. Kanneh-Mason wonders why he seems to have advised against publishing it. You may, too. It’s an absorbing experience to hear the darkly lit slow movement, short though it is (track 14).

When critic and author Jessica Duchen asks Isata Kanneh-Mason whether Clara Schumann is truly a lost genius, the reply is: “She’s not lost, but I think she needed to be rediscovered.”

See Kanneh-Mason's visit to Leipzig for a Clara Schumann tour:

Watch a trailer for the album:

Listen to tracks: