It’s two years since cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason made history as the first black musician to win the BBC’s Young Musician of the Year and we now have the opportunity to listen to the first recording of his contract with Decca.
Still in his teens and, having completed his A’ levels, now a student at the Royal Academy of Music, he has been working with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and music director Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla for his debut album.
Recorded in Birmingham and Kanneh-Mason’s hometown of Nottingham during two concerts with the orchestra, both conducted by Gražinytė-Tyla, the album features Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No1 – the piece that propelled him to the Young Musician title.
It sits at the heart of the programme, immediately preceded by the Nocturne from the same composer’s Gadfly Suite.
If the Shostakovich is the meat in the sandwich – and it’s every bit as good as one would expect – there’s plenty more here to give listeners a sense of just what heights Kanneh-Mason is already hitting.
The most famous piece is The Swan from Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of Animals – simply beautiful playing of this lush, romantic icon; the phrasing is exquisite.
And then there is Song of the Birds. This traditional Catalan song was arranged for the instrument by the legendary Catalan cellist Pablo Casals and often played by him at the start of a concert to protest against the fascist regime of Franco in Spain.
There is an astonishing sense of emotion here; never heavy-handed – indeed, there is lightness to Kanneh-Mason’s playing that is breathtaking on occasion.
Then, on the other side of the Shostakovich, comes the beautifully lyrical Jacqueline’s Tears from Harmonies des bois by Offenbach, himself a cellist, and a reminder that the composer was not just capable of feather-light operetta. Then it’s back to Casals with his Sardana – a setting for the Catalonian national dance.
The album rounds off with arrangements for cello of Bob Marley’s No Woman, No Cry and Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah – the latter in particular works superbly.
If this sounds like a somewhat disjointed programme, it’s far from it. Underpinned by a poignant and reflective tone that helps span the musical eras and styles, it all comes together to provide the basis for an astonishingly fine debut from Kanne-Mason.
It really is not difficult to see why his name is being mentioned in the same breath as that of Jaqueline Du Pre.