Monday, August 15, 2022

Rapturous accolades for Kanneh-Mason family

Music / “The Kanneh-Mason Family”
At The Canberra Theatre
August 14, 2022

Reviewed by Tony Magee

The Kanneh-Mason family. Photo: Stuart McIntyre, Decca Classical

CELLIST Sheku Kanneh-Mason has come into the international spotlight through a variety of coinciding avenues.

Releasing three CDs all on the Decca label, all of them have been championed by controversial British music commentator Norman Lebrecht since 2016, the centrepiece being Elgar’s “Cello Concerto” with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, released in 2020.

In May 2018, the world watched and heard Sheku playing solo cello at the Royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

Sydney based impresario Andrew McKinnon, being made aware that all of Sheku’s siblings are also talented musicians, had the idea of bringing them to Australia for a national tour and, after two years of negotiations and delays due to covid, his dream has finally come true and the Kanneh-Mason family are here!

The concert at the Canberra Theatre was not without problems. The box office and cloak room staff all told us that there were no printed programs, and it was only available on their website. “Look it up on your phone”. Not particularly convenient.

Then, at interval, I noticed some people did indeed have a program so I went in search and found them at a small merchandising desk in the foyer.

This made writing this review a much more pleasurable experience.

The first half consisted of 23-year-old Sheku on cello accompanied by his 26-year-old sister Isata, herself an already established pianist of note, playing works by five different composers.

Beginning with “Sonata for Cello and Piano” by Frank Bridge, the balance between the two was mostly good, the piano occasionally dominating slightly. Isata has a very relaxed and fluid technique and a career as a major solo concert pianist could be possible if she so desires. Sheku’s cello came through with a bold, crisp almost “edgy” tone in the middle and upper registers, all played with flawless, impeccable intonation.

His instrument, a Matteo Gofriller made in Venice in 1700, has a defined bass register full of clarity but not a huge bass weight as can be heard on some other instruments.

Sheku left the stage briefly, leaving Isata to play Gershwin’s “Prelude No. 1”. A fiery and commanding performance, she left the audience in no doubt that she virtually “owned” the piece and every note and phrase from the piano came through with brilliance and confidence.

“Song Without Words in D major” by Mendelssohn, arranged for cello and piano, was delightful with dream-like cantabile legato passages from the cello, the two instruments alternating between pianissimo phrases of delicacy and bold dramatic climax points.

“Sicilienne” by von Paradis was a short piece in triple time. Also song-like, the two musicians demonstrated their art of crafting the most delicate of passages with poise and grace.

The “Sonata for Cello and Piano” by Shostakovich is a lengthy work in four movements. Sheku and Isata involved themselves in a complex musical interplay. Pizzicato passages from the cello came through with clarity and refinement. The piano accompaniment was bold and dramatic.

The “Largo” movement was soft, sorrowful and mournful.

The finale “Allegro” revealed busy and vibrant cello work from Sheku and furious dramatic passages from the two players combined. The entire piece was masterfully played and a showstopper finale to the first half of the concert.

The second half opened with the entire seven siblings on stage playing “Seal Lullaby” by Eric Whitacre and very beautifully done it was, too.

The 22-year-old pianist, Konya, then played the “2nd Impromptu from Opus 90” by Schubert. It was a note-perfect performance but lacked the drama and intensity necessary in the furious middle section of the piece. A slower pace would have suited it better as well, allowing for more musical detail.

Violinist Braimah, 24, joined his 19-year-old sister Jeneba at the piano for Pablo de Sarasata’s “Zigeurnerweisen”. Braimah’s violin playing was bold and confident with a crisp tone and excellent intonation. The piano delivered a huge range of dynamics in its accompanying role and the balance between the two was excellent.

The Andante movement from Mendelssohn’s “Piano Trio No.1 in D minor” followed by Jeneba, Aminata (16) and Mariatu (13). With a nice balance between the three, the piece was very beautifully played with great feeling and emotion.

Jeneba then took to the stage alone, sitting down at the Steinway D piano, to play the “Hungarian Rhapsody No.2” by Liszt.

A tried and true concert favourite worldwide, her rendition was on the conservative side, opting for clarity of line and tone, rather than a flamboyant “bravura” reading, which is usually the norm. Her technique is liquid and refined.

The seven siblings reformed for a double finale, firstly a medley of themes from “Fiddler on the Roof” by Bock and Harnick and specially arranged by the Kannah-Mason family.

While the familiar melodies were all there and played well, the overall effect lacked the spontaneity, musical ornamentation and embellishments that would normally be heard in authentic Russian or Eastern European folk music, particularly if played by a Gypsy ensemble.

It was a straight and conservative reading which, although enjoyable, left one feeling a little short-changed.

Finishing with Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”, whispers and murmurs of delight could be heard throughout the audience at this announcement and the musicians transformed into an ensemble where each player poured their heart and soul into the piece resulting in rapturous applause.

It was a fitting conclusion to this unique event and I think the Canberra audience felt privileged to have been given the opportunity to hear Sheku Kanneh-Mason and his family playing live before us.

First published in Canberra City News on-line edition, August 15, 2022