Kanneh-Mason Navigates Beauty and Anguish

Jan 13, 2020

Cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s second recording features a collection of touching miniatures in orbit around Elgar's iconic Cello Concerto, and it’s WCRB’s CD of the Week.

Britain’s Kanneh-Mason family is a phenomenon – seven sibling classical musicians from Nottingham who have been profiled in documentaries seen around the world. The mystery of deep musical talent seems even more intriguing when it visits an entire family, but every voice is unique, and the Kanneh-Masons say they are tightly enough knit to be supportive of each other as individuals. Check out this episode of CBS Sunday Morning:

When Sheku won the 2016 BBC Young Musician of the Year award, he became the first black musician ever to win it. He played to an audience of a billion at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. He’s been on the cover of GQ Magazine. And he’s just been appointed as a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for services to music in Britain’s 2020 New Year’s Honours list. He’s accomplished all of this while continuing to study at London’s Royal Academy. Now, he’s had the spectacular good fortune of working with Sir Simon Rattle on a recording of one of the most loved pieces of music in England, Elgar's Cello Concerto.

On this new album, the Concerto is the centerpiece of a collection of arrangements of pieces written around the same time, all of which bring you into the dramatically rich and colorful sound world of the cello. Sheku’s warm and burnished sound meets you at the very beginning in his solo cello arrangement of the traditional Northumbrian folk tune Blow the Wind Southerly. He says that Kathleen Ferrier’s 1949 recording was the inspiration for it:

With that yearning nostalgia as an opening, Kanneh-Mason frames Elgar’s Concerto with a six-cello version of the “Nimrod” variation from Elgar’s Enigma Variations, and Elgar’s Romance in D minor.

Sheku’s vision of the concerto is lyrical and compassionate, recorded in a single day at Abbey Road Studios. Its intimacy requires an equally intimate listen. To those who might wonder whether a 20-year-old musician can plumb the complex depths of a piece so full of passion and resignation, Kanneh-Mason said this to GQ:

“I think people often say that to understand heartbreaking music you need to have had heartbreak yourself. Maybe an element of that is true, but I’m not sure. You can still be moved to the highest level and be able to express something to the highest level even if you haven’t experienced it directly yourself.”

There’s sunlight in Frank Bridge’s Spring Song arranged for cello and string quartet, and a haunting melancholy in Swiss composer Ernest Bloch’s two pieces, Prélude, and Prayer (No. 1) from Jewish Life (featuring Sheku’s brother, violinist Braimah). There’s more, too, including Fauré, Klengel, and an arrangement of “Scarborough Fair” for cello and guitar. Listen all week to hear it on WCRB.

Watch a trailer and behind-the-scenes video for this album:

For more information and to purchase this recording, visit ArkivMusic.